Tag Archives: michael ondaatje

Toronto: The Livable, User-friendly City!

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(A shot of downtown T.O., just up the street from my pad)

How’s that title for a tourism slogan! Come to Toronto, where you can live as a human being AND use kindly things in a way that will make them seem like they’re a friend.

Writer and translator Manjushree Thapa over at The Millions has penned what is labelled a “quasi-love letter to Toronto,” the city I was born in, grew up in, and now live in (making me as rare a species as the Manhattanite who was born, raised, and still lives on the 59 km2 island), titled “I Don’t Love You, Toronto: On Books and Cities.”

It’s an interesting look at Toronto from the point of view of someone arriving here as an adult. Not only does she look into the city’s Native Canadian roots (something most of us Torontonians, sadly, know little about), but she also links some well-know CanLit (Canadian literature) books to the city.

Although Ms. Thapa is from Nepal, she nailed something soooooo Toronto when talking about housing: “…we’d slip into that most Torontonian of conversations, about buying or renting or moving away entirely.” The only thing missing from that statement is …or put our names down on the provincial 160,000 person waiting list for affordable housing (almost half of that list being in Toronto alone).

For what it’s worth, my favourite novel about Toronto remains Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which earned him a Toronto Book Award in 1988.

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The Golden Man Booker Prize

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Consider this: Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient won the Governor General’s Award and the Booker Prize. The film adaptation was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won nine (including best picture). It also won five BAFTA Awards and two Golden Globes.

However, it wasn’t until last year that Ondaatje received what is arguably the most prestigious honour in the English-speaking world of fiction. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, a special judging panel was put together to name the greatest Man Booker Prize of them all. And wouldn’t you know it? They named The English Patient the Golden Man Booker. (How did I not know this fact until today???)

Friends of mine who know my reading habits have grown bored over the years listening  to me wax poetic how The English Patient is quite possibly the greatest novel of the 20th century. Well, at least I know I have some like-minded friends over at the Man Booker Prize.

As an aside, if you’re curious which books Michael Ondaatje enjoys re-reading time and time again, check out this piece from Goodreads.

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(One of my favourite scenes from the film)

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Quote of the Day

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“Come with every wound and every woman you’ve ever loved; every lie you’ve ever told and whatever it is that keeps you up at night. Every mouth you’ve punched in, all the blood you’ve ever tasted. Come with every enemy you’ve ever made and all the family you’ve ever buried and every dirty thing you’ve ever done; every drink that’s burnt your throat and every morning you’ve woken with nothing and no one. Come with all your loss, your regrets, sins, memories, black outs, secrets. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you.”

— Warsan Shire

In the wake of yesterday’s fabulously fabulous response to Nayyirah Waheed and her gorgeous lyricism on what is so innate in us as human beings, I had to follow that up with something equally as spectacular. If you visit the kepthoney.com blog, you’ll see the above piece went with/came right after Ms. Waheed’s own sparkling gem.

According to The Poetry Foundation, Warsan Shire is a poet and activist from London, England. She’s the author of the collections Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Her Blue Body, and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us.

All I know is that her writing, as is evidenced today, reminds me of Michael Ondaatje’s poetry in many ways, like there’s a visceral element to her words that draws you in and allows you to almost taste them. Don’t believe me? Then take a gander at this beaut I can actually remember reading for the first time eons ego in a little place called Mokpo. From Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter:

“He tried to take in the smell of her. The taste of her mouth in the next hotel room they passed along the road. He knew the shape of her body…He went with her for months into the relationship, awkward fist fights, the slow true intimacy, disintegration after they exchanged personalities and mannerisms, the growing tired of each other’s speed…What he wanted was cruel, pure relationship.”

I am admittedly not usually the world’s biggest poetry fan, but the last two posts have me reconsidering my thoughts on this issue. And the two sites I’ve linked to today are great places to start your own exploration into the genre.

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Writing Your First Book

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There was an interesting article in The Guardian a while ago titled “How to finish a novel: tracking a book’s progress from idea to completion.” It’s about a go-getter named Wyl Menmuir and an app he used called WriteTrack (now known as Prolifiko) to keep tabs on his progress/set daily goals over his journey to write – and finish! – his first novel.

The original aim was to complete a 44,242-word book in 124 days.

Before we go on, I have to point out a couple of things. To begin, I first wrote about a similar subject when I created a Page on this site called “Evolution of a Novel.” I described how much changes in the years (plural) it takes most authors to write a novel. I cut and paste a single paragraph, the opening to A Father’s Son, from its inception in 2006 to its completion in 2012 to its published form in 2013, and the differences between drafts is pretty staggering. Why? Because time had passed and I could go in with fresh eyes at each new stage.

The fact that Tolstoy and Ondaatje each only took five years to craft War and Peace and The English Patient, respectively, is insane. Arundhati Roy, who took home the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things, will be releasing her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, next month. In case you lost count, that’s 20 years for her follow-up work of fiction.

My own second novel is scheduled to be published next spring. I began the first draft of The Immortal Flower in winter 2001. By the time it comes out, the writing/editing/publishing of that single book will represent 39% of my life. Ouch!

Second, since when did a novel fall under 50,000 words? Doesn’t that get tagged as a “novella” anymore? It’s my understanding that most novels – even in today’s age of hyperconnectivity – fall in the word count range of 80,000 to 100,000 words.

Than again, maybe I’m full of **** and **** because Mr. Menmuir ended up completing his novel in one year, 10 months and two days. In the grand scheme of things, I’d say that’s still pretty fast, especially for someone who’d never finished a full-length novel before.

The real icing on this gravy train of literary sweetness, though? Menmuir not only finished The Many, but he got it published. Amazing. But there’s more! He not only got it published, but he was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016!

I therefore say to all of you out there who’ve been sitting on an idea for a book for years: Go do it! If you need an app, download it. Otherwise, read The Guardian article I linked to above and then tell yourself, I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Set aside a single hour a day at first – even 30 minutes in the beginning – and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you may be able to impress even yourself.

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Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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Apropos of yesterday’s Quote of the Day from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, you can imagine my surprise when I chanced upon this TED Talk from Cortney Warren (@DrCortneyWarren) this morning titled “Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception.”

This could very well be the most informative 13 minutes and 47 seconds you experience all week. Maybe all month. Ms. Warren is a gifted orator with a staggering intellect, an eloquent public speaker who takes complex issues of the mind and finds a way to present them as common denominators that anyone can relate to (think Pericles meets Oliver Sacks meets Niki Taylor) – and she has a message for all of us: It’s time to take responsibility for our life story (thank you, Mikey O.) and stop the big little lies (thank you, HBO) that spiral out of control as we get older and lead to nothing but a life of self-deceit, unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams.

Sound cheery and cheerful? Right-o! Well, fortunately Ms. Warren has a panacea of sorts and it’s pretty simple: stop blaming and start accepting; forget what others expect of you and remember what it is you expect of yourself; understand that you play a role, no matter how big or small, in all of the outcomes that dictate the life path you presently find yourself on.

“Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”

That’s what Mr. Ondaatje wrote in his epic novel more than 30 years ago, and it’s what Cortney Warren echoes, not through the prism of art or literature, but from the perspective of psychology. And it would seem she’s anything but a hypocrite in this matter: After a life spent in academia and finally (finally!) achieving tenure, she soon submitted her resignation because she realized that was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She had the strength to face down her own self-deception and begin a new journey down a path where she will aim to be a better, more honest liar – at least to herself.

(Dear Cortney, should you ever happen to stumble upon this post on the great highway called the interweb, please know that I feel your pain/admire your bravery. I, too, left a prestigious job teaching at a university in 2004 to pursue writing as a full-time gig and have never looked back. I may be much poorer in currency than I was all those years ago, but I am rich – err…wrong word – much more satisfied and at peace with the life path I chose to walk down at that critical juncture of my life. God speed as you embark on the next phase of your destiny and you assume the skins of wild animals.)

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Quote of the Day

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“Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”

Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion

This is, without a doubt, unequivocally, no question, stick-a-fork-in-me-I’m-done-like-dinner one my favourite quotes in the entire canon of English language literature. If you have not read this book, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and head directly to jail (or your local library/bookstore); if you have not read anything at all by Ondaatje – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, commentary – and you are over the age of 30, go straight to the hospital, get an MRI, then tell the technician, “Shoot me now, please.”

In the Skin of a Lion is a very loose prequel to Ondaatje’s most famous work internationally, The English Patient, but the novel stands on its own two feet just fine. Aside from winning the prestigious Governor General’s Award, it has stood the test of time since being published 30 years ago and will, in my humble opinion, continue to resonate with readers for many years to come. Like, many years to come.

When writing about this novel in an academic paper, Graciela Moreira Slepoy so rightly pointed out:

“As the title of the novel indicates, to take responsibility for one’s own story and for its narration is a way of legitimising and appropriating one’s life in order to compensate for historical omissions. Alice’s explanation of the meaning of the title emphasises the importance of telling personal stories.”

An immigrant himself, Mr. Ondaatje first uprooted his life in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and moved to England in 1954. Eight years later, in 1962, he made his final move, to Canada, and now resides in Toronto.

In the same paper as above, Graciela Moreira Slepoy states that “In the Skin of a Lion narrates forgotten stories of those who contributed to the building of…Toronto, particularly immigrants and marginal[ized] individuals.” In the novel, this primarily centres around two pieces of highly relevant Toronto infrastructure, the Bloor Street Viaduct (Prince Edward Viaduct) and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, as well as the immigrant workers who built them.

Although a different time period than his own, this was obviously something that Ondaatje could not only sympathize with, but an experience that more than 20 years after first landing in Montreal he still felt passionate about. In 1987, he took this passion and his personal memories as an immigrant, combined them with some intense research carried out at the City of Toronto Archives,  and then brought this all together with a compelling plot and beautiful prose.

The result was the publication of one of the most important and enduring pieces of Canadian fiction – and one of its most enjoyable to read.

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Quote of the Day

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“There is a limit to the amount of misery and disarray you will put up with, for love, just as there is a limit to the amount of mess you can stand around a house. You can’t know the limit beforehand, but you will know when you’ve reached it. I believe this.”

Alice Munro, “Bardon Bus”

Canada’s first Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate, this Quote of the Day comes from the sixth story, “Bardon Bus,” in Ms. Munro’s fifth book, The Moons of Jupiter (1982). Often referred to as the “Master of the Short Story” and the “Chekov of Our Times,” Alice Munro is without doubt a titan in modern literature.

Personally, what’s always struck me about her prose is how clean, simple and poignant it is. Whereas authors like Michael Ondaatje and Irvine Welsh seem to effortlessly turn the English language on its head – and still succeed as novelists that make each unique in their own way – Alice Munro is like a carpenter, electrician and contractor all rolled into one; she can take what at first glance appears to be basic building blocks, and with practiced grace takes a literary hole in the ground only to transform it into a remarkable house, a home that is at once new and glorious, yet vaguely familiar and comfortable.

Sadly, Alice Munro, like her contemporary Philip Roth, announced her “retirement” from writing four years ago. But, just as with Mr. Roth, the rumour mill abounds with speculation that she will pick up her quill and quire once again and we will all be blessed with more literary genius from a literary genius.

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Quote of the Day

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“It is difficult for a man ever to give advice to his father. Even if you try to think of him as just another man he is still your father and you are his child, regardless of how old you have become.”

Here’s a tip: If and when you come across a book with a blurb by Michael Ondaatje on the front or back cover, purchase it immediately. Like, now now. Don’t think about it. Just buy it. If you can’t afford it, then heed the goodly and nicely advice of Abbie Hoffman, whose 1971 book title says it all – Steal This Book.

Alistair MacLeod’s 1999 prize-winning novel No Great Mischief is one of those rare works of Canadiana that does not put you to sleep. Set between Toronto, Northern Ontario and Cape Breton Island (which some readers will know painfully well from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees), the story is a lyrical mirror of our country’s modern history and captures many of these subtleties in ways only a master craftsman can do.

What I find ironic is that reading today’s Quote of the Day once again reminded me of – guess who! – Michael Ondaatje (and he’s got a blurb on Mr. MacLeod’s book cover in this version), and one of his innumerable pieces of prose that not only rocked my world the first time I read it in his memoir Running in the Family, but provided the opening to the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral years ago:

“Words such as love, passion, duty, are so continually used they grow to have no meaning – except as coins or weapons. Hard language softens. I never knew what my father felt of these “things.” My loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult.”

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Quote of the Day

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People have a hard enough time choosing just one novel as their favourite piece of fiction, let alone a single passage from all the books they’ve read as the most beautiful or powerful string of words they’ve ever come across. Not so for me. I knew it the first time I read this passage and have known it all of the hundreds of times I’ve reread it since then. Unless and until I stumble upon something more moving, I’m taking this with me to the grave as the most stunning piece of prose in the modern English literary canon.

It comes from Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 masterpiece, The English Patient, a sort of sequel to In the Skin of a Lion (1987). Winner of the Governor General’s Award (English-language fiction) and Booker Prize, the movie adaptation went on to win 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

So, without further ado, I bring you a stirring piece of writing that has been inspiring me creatively for more than 20 years.

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

I carried Katherine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds.” 

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