Wade Davis is Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. His books include The Serpent and the Rainbow and Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.
The Iron Bridge, a collection of short stories by Anton Piatigorsky that takes us deep into the adolescent psyches of boys who will one day become brutal dictators (everyone from Pol Pot to Hitler), is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I can’t remember the last time a book held my attention so intensely. Piatigorsky’s writing is funny, disturbing, heartbreaking, tender and terrifying, often in the same paragraph. It is a brazen idea that is brilliantly, thrillingly executed. (Bonus Tip: I recommend not reading this book while breastfeeding. Generally it’s best to save books about how dictators become dictators for times when you are not lactating – this is something no one told me.)
Sarah Polley is an actor and director. She most recently directed Take This Waltz and the documentary Stories We Tell.
Intrigued by all the talk that Philip Roth might win the Nobel Prize, I reread all of his books this year and found one I hadn’t read and loved called Sabbath’s Theater. Roth is at his best when being outrageous and Sabbath’s Theater is every bit as outrageous as Portnoy’s Complaint and just as funny in parts.
Mickey Sabbath, is an adult finger puppeteer in his sixties and a self-confessed “whoremonger, seducer and sodomist, abuser of women, destroyer of morals and ensnarer of youth.”
What works best is that the sex in the book is so layered. Although tawdry, it always has a grief-stricken longing for intimacy and a feeble attempt at warding off death. Of course, this is what we are all striving for, so in the end the reader, somewhat reluctantly, identifies with porno sage Sabbath. Only Roth could manage to make us feel at one with such a debauched character. No wonder the novel won the 1995 National Book Award.
Catherine Gildiner’s most recent book is the memoir After the Falls.
Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, by Marcello Di Cintio, elevates travel writing to the highest level of literary non-fiction. Di Cintio brings us face-to-face with the walls that divide us: in Belfast, in Cyprus, in India and North Africa, along the U.S.-Mexico border. A provocative yet reasoned work, it offers both a sweeping look at global forces and an intimate portrayal of the people who live along the barricades that are as much cultural, economic and religious as they are physical. A remarkable book by one of the finest young travel writers working today.
Will Ferguson’s novel 419 won the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Anthony Trollope writes novels the way a scientist would like to pursue science – passionately, obsessively and forever. But, I have not known a scientist who went into the laboratory from 5 a.m. until eight, so as to be ready for a second-full-time job that began at nine (Trollope worked at the post office). Quite a number can match his appetite for work, but only the very first rank can match his inventiveness.
This paean comes after reading, in sequence, the first three books about the Palliser family, falling in and out of love, going in and out of parliament, and remaining in debt. The titles are: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn and The Eustace Diamonds, each a gripping 700 pages; all from 1864-1873.
To spend this amount of time in Trollope’s company is the ultimate Christmas party. The guests are fascinating and your host never leaves your side, giving the impression of total frankness, all the time leaving you in suspense. He is sexist, racist and rotten with prejudice (things have improved), but an incomparable storyteller, engaging in vicious parody one moment and having you close to tears the next.
The chief complaint against Trollope was that he wrote too much. He couldn’t be any good. Trollope overheard this complaint at his club, and at once started trimming his manuscripts. Thank God he didn’t trim them much.
John Polanyi teaches at the University of Toronto. In 1986, he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.