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Running in the Family

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  7,943 ratings  ·  701 reviews
In the late 1970s Ondaatje returned to his native island of Sri Lanka. As he records his journey through the drug-like heat and intoxicating fragrances of that "pendant off the ear of India, " Ondaatje simultaneously retraces the baroque mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family. An inspired travel narrative and family memoir by an exceptional writer. ...more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published November 30th 1993 by Vintage (first published 1982)
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Average rating 3.83  · 
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 ·  7,943 ratings  ·  701 reviews

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Jim Fonseca

This book is hard to categorize as it is part family memoir, part travelogue and part autobiography. There’s even a section of poetry. Ondaatje, best known for his novel, The English Patient, was born in Ceylon, the island off southern India, now Sri Lanka. His ancestry was a mix of native Sinhalese and Dutch, but the European part predominated since they were a member of the small minority of Christians on the island and certainly upper class.


Sri Lanka is about the size of West Virginia, so hi
Violet wells
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
To what extent do the most colourful anecdotes about a person define that person's personality? In my family the most enigmatic character was my maternal grandfather. The anecdote most often brought up to describe him was the night he organised a mass break out from the nursing home where he had been placed after another calamitous drunken night when he had done himself damage. His escape party was eventually captured three miles from the home. They were all sitting by the sea. Thinking about it ...more
Claudia Savage
Sep 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Dear Mr. Ondaatje,
You've got to stop writing such powerful, sexy books. You make me want to abandon everything and move to Ceylon. I have a terrible problem with mosquitoes. And, frankly, I become rather crazy in the heat. But, ohhhh, how you seduce. Grandmothers dying in floods, the drinking, the dancing, the sheer cliffs, the friendly snakes that might be your father. I want to hang out in the verdant fields with you and your family. I've never before found mine so ordinary.
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
I infinitely preferred this book, by turns laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking, to any of Ondaatje's novels that I've read. The book is definitely fragmentary, and perhaps that keeps it feeling light, even though the prose (and poetry!) is first-rate and the subject matter often quite dark. In any event, as Ondaatje takes us on his journey of re-discovery of family and place in Sri Lanka, he has a deftness and a randomness that his (to me) overly determined novels sometimes lack. A voice you ...more
Nov 28, 2015 rated it liked it
these 203 pages were some of the longest 203 pages i have ever read. the writing is lyrical (albeit sometimes very confusing) and there are some particularly shining vignettes, but other parts, i really had to shoulder through.
Apr 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travels, memoir
Ondaatje’s family is as mythically crazy as Garcia-Marquez’s fictional Buendia clan. His father in particular—an epic binger, gin hole, naked hijacker of trains, and participant in elaborate, picturesque feuds:

And there was Lalla too, like a bee attracted to the perfume of any flower, who came up every other week solely to ransack the garden and who departed with a car full of sprigs and branches. With hardly any room to move or stretch, she rode back to Colombo, still as a corpse in a flower-pa
Jacob Overmark
Michael Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka to learn more about his ancestral history.
The family chronicle spans over hundreds of years - and it is certainly not boring.
There are usually one or two eccentric aunts/uncles in a family, here eccentricity is … running in the family.
Apart from being a very personal account and a family reunion the book also offers a happy revisit to those having travelled to Sri Lanka .
Dec 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetshere
Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us in the end nothing of personal relationships.

This is a fragmented and haunted account of the author's family, an account which goes back to Sri Lanka--where the author hadn't lived since the age of eleven. This work easily could have been twice as long. It is perilous work sifting through the details of one's family. I suppose it isn't as traumatic when one grows up being made aware of the stress fractures and the splintered remains. Much is made
K.D. Absolutely
Nov 07, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommended to K.D. by: 500 Must Read Books (Memoir)
Shelves: 501, memoirs
What a nice break from reading so many fiction books! This lyrical memoir of Michael Ondaatje is a must read of those who read and did not like his Booker-award winning novel The English Patient. In this book, I agree with Margaret Atwood said that he (Mr. Ondaatje) is at his agile and evocative best. This book is brightly colored, sweet and painful and legend-like. If you still doubt that Mr. Ondaatje is a gifted writer, read this memoir. Reading him here is akin to St. Thomas touching the Holy ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Memoir 3 of my 2019 Non-fiction November reading frenzy. Can you believe I put off reading this one because I thought it was about running? Instead Ondaatje uses a few visits to Sri Lanka in the 1970s to take a trip down memory lane, with stories from his family told interlaced with poetry. In some ways it's a strange privileged point of view since he only mentions the violence that would have already started in one passing comment, but he moved away from the island as a child so the majority of ...more
Nov 01, 2007 rated it it was ok
There were so many great elements in this book--exotic setting, interesting characters, dramatic events, poetic language (although the sections in verse seemed sort of, well, bad)--and yet somehow I could never get excited about it. Maybe something about the lack of...dramatic arc in the present narrative? I don't know. Maybe it was great. Maybe it was my fault. I just couldn't dance to it. ...more
Jan 12, 2009 rated it liked it
I am not a good person to judge this book. I do not like short stories or books composed of vignettes. That is exactly what this book is. You do end up learning about Ondaatje' family, beginning with his grandparent s and ending with his parents. You do not learn much about Michael. The depiction of lush, verdant Ceylon, the changing landscapes, the valleys and mountains is captivating. But I was clearly having a hard time with the form of the chapters. There are chapters of poetry; they do not ...more
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Wonderful memoir and family history in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) where the talented author and poet grew up until age 11, when he moved to Toronto in 1962. The family had Dutch colonial roots from the 17th century, with a blending with Tamil and Sinhalese over the centuries. The narrative is a lovely blend of evocation of Michael's young life on a tea plantation and a reconstruction of the history and experiences of his grandparents and parents from the 1920's.

The life was mostly that of the privilege
Mar 12, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1982
***Some may say that this review contains spoilers but since nothing really happened in this book (wait, was that a "spoiler"?) it is hard to say what a "spoiler" for this book is.

Ok. ok. I get it. Your dad was a drunk. But remember when he did that really funny thing? or not? Remember when he was so kind? or when he wasn't? Remember how intelligent he was? Or that really dumb thing he did? How horrible. How wonderful!

Ok. ok. I get it. Your mom is amazing. Except when she did that not so amazing
Ryan Faulkner
Jul 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: humans
rather than reviewing this book, i'll just transcribe a passage that should convince you pretty soundly:

"you must get this book right," my brother tells me. "you can only write it once." but the book again is incomplete. in the end, all your children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues. not that we have ever thought we would be able to fully understand you. love is often enough, towards your stadium of small things. whatever brought you solace we would have applauded. w
Kasa Cotugno
Even though I read this almost 20 years ago, I remember it as being one of the best family histories I ever read. Hilarious in parts, and along with Cat's Table which was written much later, provides insights into one of my favorite authors. ...more
Aug 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: subcontinent, 21st, memoir
It was my first time reading a post-colonial text. This book is such a pleasant and smoothly-written by an author who is craving into his past; the past where at the beginning he claims he has forgotten and been detached from. He goes through a series of relatives, acquintances, family friends as if completing a puzzle. However, his puzzle at the end is not a typically tightly fit among all the pieces. You often find accounts which are intriguing or sometimes peculiar; their veracity might somet ...more
Debapriya Nag
Feb 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is seemingly undeveloped and unfinished; like a draft for a novel later. But don't let that fool you. You need to pick up a copy and read this book because its beauty lies in its irregularity and simplicity. It is disjointed and follows a post modern style. Sometimes there are poems and stories and sometimes just pictures and conversations but all dealing with Ondaatje's family and his early life in Sri Lanka. This memoir will shock you and make you laugh but all the while, you cant st ...more
Mar 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Tawny by: Dr. Keith Lawrence
Shelves: memoir
Favorite lines:
1. "During certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed."
2. "No story is ever told just once."
3. "There is so much to know and we can only guess. Guess around him. To know him from these stray actions I am told about by those who loved him. And yet, he is still one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut."
Jun 21, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Ondaatje's memoir about growing up in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is filled with vivid, lush imagery.

Too bad his family stories are so uninteresting! Boring tales of drunk fathers, cantankerous grandmothers, and subdued siblings were made bearable by the author's writing skill.

Just not bearable enough to recommend this tome to others.
Vicki Antipodean Bookclub
“You must get this book right,” my brother tells me, “You can only write it once.” But the book again is incomplete. In the end all your children move around the scattered acts and memories with no more clues. Not that we thought that we would ever be able to fully understand you. Love is often enough, in your stadium of small things.”
Michael Ondaatje was eleven years old when he left Sri Lanka for an English boarding school. In Running in the Family, he returns as an adult to try and learn a
May 16, 2010 rated it did not like it
I can't remember the last time I was so thoroughly bored and disinterested while reading a book. Thank goodness it was only 200 pages because I always finish a book once started. I read reviews praising the language and imagery but I found it jumpy and confusing and since it's not told in chronological order I couldn't keep all the family members and friends straight. Thank goodness for the antics of Lalla his grandmother as she was the only character I found interesting. I was confused by what ...more
Feb 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I want to sit down with someone and talk with utter directness, want to talk to all the lost history like that deserving lover.

Love is often enough, towards your stadium of small things.

This was my first time reading Mr Ondaatje’s masterful quasi-memoir and every time I read and open one of his books, something magical always happens. He writes about growing up in fragmented sentences, poetry, and lyrical lines that are dreamlike, surreal, and it feels like it he grew up in a hot and intoxicati
Jul 24, 2007 rated it liked it
A lovely tease of a book. Part memoir and part atmospheric poetry, each chapter hints at an event or anecdote from Ontdaaje's ancestors' lives in Sri Lanka. Generations of expats and patriots come and go, shown to the reader in brief glimpses and short chapters of prose or poetry. The writing is, as always, lyrical, evokative, clever and beautiful, but at the end I found I wanted more. Gorgeous hints at abiding and neurotic family dynamics that skim across the surface of a deeper story. Sometime ...more
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: michael-ondaatje
I wanted to touch them into words.
How I have used them.… They knit the story together, each memory a wild thread in the sarong.
During certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our job becomes to keep peace with enemy camps, eliminate the chaos at the end of Jacobean tragedies, and with “the mercy of distance” write the histories.
Sep 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Sometimes I find myself weary of the eighteen different books I've started reading and left sitting somewhere around my house, and I wonder if I'll ever finish reading any of them. In such times, I'll pick up a book by Michael Ondaatje and read it in two days. He is an angel, and his books have the flash & magnificence & abundance of the heavens. ...more
Dec 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Though I've written five memoirs and reviewed countless more, I'm not sure there's one that keeps bringing me back and back like Running in the Family. The opening page alone is worth the price of the book. ...more
Mary Blye Kramer
Dec 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written, poetic meteor about the author’s father and about growing up in Sri Lanka.
Ayden M
Dec 03, 2019 rated it liked it
While I was forced to read this book for the International Baccalaureate, this book wasn’t bad. Personally I am not a huge fan of memoir style writing, but some of the stories in here were captivating enough to keep me motivated to read the next chapter. If you enjoy the memoir style, give this a read.
Feb 09, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Another piece that I was required to read for my advanced nonfiction writing class. It was very different from the others (Maya Angelou and Geoffrey Wolff) in topic, writing style, and flow.

Running in the Family was difficult to read and dive into, at first. The writing style is disjointed and the timeline of the narrative jumbles and hops around. Within each section of chapters, the paragraph could begin with a story about the narrator's grandmother, and end with paddies and riding on trains. H
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He was born to a Burgher family of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese origin. He moved to England with his mother in 1954. After relocating to Canada in 1962, Ondaatje became a Canadian citizen. Ondaatje studied for a time at Bishops College School and Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, but moved to Toronto and received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA from Queen's Universit ...more

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