It’s the festive season and what better way to commemorate Hari Raya than with books that celebrate family. Umapagan Ampikaipakan shares some of his favourites
A Suitable Boy
by Vikram Seth
1,488pp / Harper Perennial Modern Classics
NO other novel takes you into the minds and motivations of the subcontinent quite like A Suitable Boy. The story of a Hindu family trying to find a suitable suitor for their daughter Lata is as much a light old-fashioned Bombay talkie as much as it is a multi-charactered opus about the struggles of a nation on the verge. Vikram Seth possesses a storyteller’s voice. He interweaves the stories of the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans, with the historical and social events of the time. Every character is individually crafted. Each one is so real that it feels like someone you know. There is a palpability to his prose. It is vivid. It is ponderous. It is affectionate.
by Michael Chabon
500pp / Hyperion Books
DON’T be put off by the “young adult” classification. Summerland is an epic father and son novel where the mythology is wildly inventive, where the swagger is uniquely American, where baseball is a metaphor for life. It is about the eight-year-old Ethan Field (a fitting — if obvious — surname), the worst player in the history of baseball, who gets recruited to the hero leagues by a former Negro League ballplayer named Ringfinger Brown. It is about a road trip across the Summerlands to a nine-inning showdown with the evil Coyote — the shapeshifting trickster who has kidnapped Ethan’s dad. It is about stealing home and saving the world. This is what Narnia would look like if it was American; bat-winged goblins, sea-monsters, werefoxes, and baseball.
Running in the Family
by Michael Ondaatje
208pp / Vintage
“I MUST confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture.’” It is a disclaimer that Ondaatje makes early in this stunning performance of history and self-discovery that chronicles his pilgrimage back to his native Ceylon.
He sets out to meet long forgotten relatives, to piece together the story of his family, to better know and understand his father. For this paternal disconnect is something that he has suffered with for most of his life, it is something that has left an empty space in his identity. Ondaatje writes with a casual grace. With a dislocated prose that perfectly personifies both his struggle and that of his home country.
The questions he asks, the discoveries he makes, are, all of them, depicted with a keen sense of curiosity as well as a remarkable tenderness. This is a book so full of colour. It is evocative. It is sensual. It is never bogged down by those depressing political realities.
by Joan Didion
188pp / Random House
BLUE Nights is a sequel of sorts. A companion volume in which Didion tries to make sense of yet another tragedy in her life. The last decade hasn’t been kind to Didion and her family. For just 20 months after the death of her husband, their adoptive daughter, Quintana Roo, also passed away. She was only 39. It is the kind of trauma that is unfathomable.
So much so that it transcends empathy. How does one even begin to cope with such a continuous assault on one’s emotional, psychological, and physical faculties? Where does one find the strength? If Didion is any measure, then the answer to those questions is a combination of unflinching honesty, harsh self-reflection, and the willingness to do it openly and publicly. By putting pen to paper in an attempt to explain life’s brutalities.
Did she do right by her daughter? Did she love her enough? Was she a good mother? Was she the problem? Was she always the problem? They are tough questions made tougher when you’re forced to face them while at the same time confronting “the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
by Robert M. Pirsig
448pp / Harper Perennial Modern Classics
THE ultimate road trip novel. The great father and son tale. Forget the preachy pontifications of all those pseudo-philosophical wannabes. This is how philosophical fiction should be done. A sophisticated Chautauqua into some of the most important philosophical questions of our age. Why has technology alienated us from our world? What are the limits of rational analysis? If we can’t define the good, how can we live it? It is an investigation that takes the form of a father and son road trip where the maintenance of the motorcycle becomes a metaphor for the unification of rationality with imagination; of technology with art. It is, at once, a compelling and entertaining story, as well as an enlightening and edifying hypothesis. It’s testament lies, not in the answers it provides, but in the questions it raises.