Good Minds Suggest: Michael Ondaatje's Favorite Novels to Reread

May, 2018
Michael Ondaatje

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Michael Ondaatje, the bestselling author of The English Patient, returns to bookshelves this month with a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II and told through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In 1945, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know.

Ondaatje is the author of six previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry, including The Cat's Table and Anil's Ghost. He's also an avid rereader and shared some of his favorite novels to revisit. "These are books I have read more than twice, and will again," he says.

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"A young boy not wanting to eat a meal his sister has made climbs a tree to avoid it. The father says that whenever the boy comes down, he will have to eat it. He never does and spends the rest of his life in the trees. Beginning with this seeming fantasy, the story in fact becomes utterly believable and convincing, for it is a moment in history when he can travel from tree to tree for miles, even into other countries. Throughout his long life he will have affairs, be involved with politics of the era, meet great thinkers. And in fact keeps his promise and never comes down for the rest of his life. A joyous novel, full of life, and magnificent."


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"The book begins in Illinois and follows the story of how the past—a mother's death, a love affair that takes place between two neighboring couples—devastates a boy who is the central character for the rest of his life. Stunningly written, it is a great American novel. One you will never forget and will return to."


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"Walter Tevis is famous for writing The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but this is my favorite book of his. It is about a girl who, guided by her somewhat unreliable mother, becomes a child prodigy at chess. Even if you do not know how to play chess, it is a great thriller."


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"About two men who return to a small town in England after the First World War, emotionally damaged. The central character is hired to reveal an old medieval mural in a church, and as the plot of the two men unfolds and the ancient mural becomes visible, the stories are suggestively interconnected. There is a film of it. But read the book."


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"This is a book I read in my teens, a 'swashbuckler,' and it introduced me to historical fiction as well as politics before the French Revolution, the art of fencing, the skill of a duelist, love affairs, and commedia dell'arte theater in which the character of a 'scaramouche' exists. Sabatini's book was hugely popular in the 1920s, and it is wonderful. I read it as a boy and read it recently, amazed at how good it still is."


Want more book recommendations from authors? Check out our Good Minds Suggest series.

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Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Polloplayer (new)

Polloplayer Ondaatje’s “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” is on my list to read again and again.


message 2: by Angelina (new)

Angelina What a fantastic list! Thank you!!


Christopher J Schauffele I agree I have read collected works of billy the kid several times. His written words are so great that sometimes I read them aloud just to here how they resonate in the air. Many phrases worth reading aloud in his books, like a trumpet sounding loud and clear on the streets of New Orleans.


message 4: by Sara (new)

Sara I have read Running in the Family over and over. It, too, I love to read aloud. Thank you for all the wonderful books and the recommendations here.


message 5: by Rossana (new)

Rossana Karunaratna Calvino is amazing and I will certainly read Warlight. Excellent list.


message 6: by Mickey (new)

Mickey I’m adding the Calvino and Maxwell books to my list. Interesting choices.


message 7: by Roger (new)

Roger Brunyate The only one I have read is A Month in the Country. Even if I did not already admire Ondaatje, his inclusion of that would make me trust his other recommendations also.


message 8: by John (new)

John Thank you, Michael. What great summaries!


message 9: by John (new)

John Would Michael have a recommendation or two regarding books by budding Canadian writers?


message 10: by Lucy (new)

Lucy Barnhouse The fact that Ondaatje rereads Scaramouche (which I, too, loved in my teens) delights me. The Sabatini novel I most recently reread was Bellarion, but maybe it's time to revisit this one too.


message 11: by Susan (new)

Susan Chapek Polloplayer wrote: "Ondaatje’s “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” is on my list to read again and again."

That is exactly what I was going to say.


message 12: by Perry (last edited May 01, 2018 11:22AM) (new)

Perry Queen's Gambit is one of my favorite books. It was hard to find at the time I read it ages ago in hardback. Just wonderful writing and a great story. Time to reread it.


message 13: by Nancy (new)

Nancy For those who have not read Maxwell you are in for a treat. I love his work. Great list


message 14: by Jo (new)

Jo Added 3 to my want to read list.


message 15: by Ginny (new)

Ginny Not a woman writer among them. Very disappointing.


message 16: by Catriona (new)

Catriona Allsopp Thank you for this!


message 17: by Kasia (new)

Kasia I like Michael Ondaatje's writing, but he's always struck me as a man who didn't read books by women. Now I see I was right. Such a shame, it would improve his craft.


message 18: by L (new)

L Grobler I have listed all of these to my ever growing tbr list.The English Patient appeals to my romantic side and believing in true love.


message 19: by Carole (new)

Carole Thank you for the interesting comment. I enjoy rereading and consequently I find it very hard to de clutter books or lend them in case they are not returned!!!!


message 20: by Lynn Ann Davis (new)

Lynn Ann Davis Mahalo nui! Michael Ondaatje's visual writing connects to my day dreams and reminds me of the rhythm of the past and present. I am thrilled to have a path to other authors that he enjoys.


message 21: by Nicole (new)

Nicole De I read Baron in the Trees many years ago--it's a fantastic and poignant novel that stayed with me for years. I think I'm due for a re-read.


message 22: by Laurie (new)

Laurie Seeing "Scaramouche" on Ondaatje's list was exciting! I read this and "Captain Blood" as a teenager, and they are two of my favorite novels.


message 23: by Debra (new)

Debra Rollins Thanks so much. I love all your books and your poetry, especially "The Cinnamon Peeler" poems. The "Cat's Table" was wonderful and having crossed the Atlantic by ocean liner a few times I certainly was taken back to my childhood in your words. On one crossing we watched the movie "Scaramouche" every day they showed it over and over. Will definitely read the book now.. How about some women writers in your next letter, please?


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