Skip to main content

ADAM GOPNIK

Asked to name one book, I perversely think of two, though they're related. One is my good friend Louis Menand's history of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club from 2000, which had a prescient anti-war message largely missed, I suspect, by reviewers. Menand's point was that the actual experience of the American Civil War - impeccably "moral" though it may have been as a cause - was so nightmarish that it left an entire generation of intellectuals with a hatred of moral certitude of all kinds. The blessing, though, was that instead of turning merely inward or to nostalgic authoritarianism, as the post-World War One intellectuals did after a similar disillusion, it turned them to a new and more anti-authoritarian idea of what morality might be and what the truth might be that supported it. One might have thought that this much-admired study of what going to war in a moral cause was actually like would have given pause to those who, a few years later, loved to contemplate the moral delights of war-making, but it didn't.

The other book is that of the pragmatists' spiritual grandson, Richard Rorty, whose last, posthumous collection Philosophy as Cultural Politics (2007) I find myself reading again and again. A curious thing about philosophers is that we read them with as much pleasure in their smaller "lesser" works as in their big tomes, since it is a tone that we want, a voice and a way of proceeding. Rorty's Big Idea was to bring Continental Philosophy out of what Joe Flaherty would have called the "Scary Stuff, Kids!" category into the nice-as-pie department, and I'm not wise enough, nor expert enough, to know if it was really worth doing. But the sound of Rorty - flexible, vigilant, touching, satiric, personal without being confessional, intimate without being cloying - remains the sound of sanity. Curiously, the Internet supplies endless opinion but it never supplies a fresh tone. We still read books to hear voices; and find voices when we read books.

Story continues below advertisement

Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

ANNABEL LYON

My Book of the Decade is a short-story collection, The Honored Guest, by American writer Joy Williams, published in 2004. These are 12 bleak, funny, beautiful, terrifying stories I can read again and again and never get bored. The title story begins, "She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny and you had to be careful in this milieu which was eleventh grade because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left twenty-four suicide notes and had become just a joke."

Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean won the 2009 Writers' Trust Award for fiction.

CLAUDIA DEY

My books of the decade are Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro, and The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band, by Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil and Nikki Sixx with Neil Strauss.

Books teach us how to live or give us a respite from the effort of doing so. These choices speak to that dual effect - though to be clear, I am not proposing bedfellows here. I track Munro the way believers track deities, and Too Much Happiness is her finest work yet. This is the thrill: Munro writes in a prose so sure, so stripped of pyrotechnics, it evokes a sense of safety. Yet, just as you surrender, she jolts you to the brink with an unthinkable affair, illness, murder. High octane as it sounds, there is no needless drama here; life delivers plenty of that. For Munro, menace is plain, undiscerning, ubiquitous - it does not lurk without, it lurks within. She pulls back our poker faces to reveal we are our own greatest threat. Within the careful constructions we make of our lives, Munro slips in and sounds warning. She eulogizes the present. Her genius is in her compression. Her scope trumps the novel every time; in her omniscience, Munro has become guardian of the fiction form.

Story continues below advertisement

Equally dangerous, yet staged in spandex pants, The Dirt operates from that classic, irresistible conceit: They lived to tell the tale. And what a tale it is. Part glam rock catfight, part decoding of the Motley Crue legend, all id, The Dirt pulls us out of our own well-worn identities and throws us into new ones - spoiled hellions who glitter, snort zombie-dust, set up sexual obstacle courses, mud-wrestle and idiotically chase down fame - that speeding colt - only to mount it, and be bucked off. The book is weirdly affecting in that initially we are in the half-wit grip of Shakespeare's fools, but as the deaths pile up, the fall - extravagant, hubristic - is the fall of kings.

Claudia Dey is a playwright and author of the debut novel Stunt.

GEORGE MURRAY

The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock (2006), a novel in epistolary form, is told as a series of fictional letters sent by famous Canadian doctor Norman Bethune to the unborn daughter he abandoned (along with her mother) in pursuit of the next battlefield on which to play surgeon. Bock's imagined Bethune is flawed man torn between a zealot's sense of ethical and political justice and a strong, if conflicted, moral base from which he commits acts both heroic and questionable. This literally heartbreaking novel didn't receive the acclaim it deserved in Canada. I wonder if the portrait of our beloved Bethune as anything less than a perfect Superman turned people off. Though I know there's quite a bit of fiction there, the exquisite writing and depth of pain this man caused himself by following his conviction has made Bethune more real to me than history books ever could.

George Murray is the author of four books of poetry, including The Hunter, and is editor of the books website Bookninja.com. JOAN THOMAS

It's The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. The characters know a storm of some sort is coming; they feel "gust after gust of disorder." On a cruise ship, Enid leaves her husband on the upper deck and goes to the ballroom to attend a seminar on financial planning. The investment counsellor flips his chart to WHEN THE CLIMATE CHANGES, and Enid sees her husband fall past the ballroom window in his black raincoat. In 2001, when the novel was written, this was not particularly heavy-handed.

Story continues below advertisement

The Corrections is about privileged people who have exhausted any workable notion of their lives. Arguably, Franzen doesn't tell us anything we don't already know about North American families and consumer culture; the brilliance is in the exuberance and accuracy of the telling.

Joan Thomas's second novel, Curiosity, will be published in March.

HAL WAKE

For most of his life, British novelist David Mitchell has had to deal with a stutter. As a writer his locution is as fluid and graceful as can be imagined. He is a master at inhabiting various literary voices flawlessly and in his magnificent novel Cloud Atlas, those vivid voices are all in one book. Six different stories take us to different times and places, and are representative of different genres.

There are clever links between the stories, but the novel is much more than a stylistic tour de force. Mitchell has described the theme of the book as predacity: "individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations." Cloud Atlas is a compelling exploration of human nature and that, combined with its imaginative narrative technique, is what makes it one of the best books of the decade.

Hal Wake is artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

Story continues below advertisement

GEORGE FETHERLING

When A. F. Moritz published Night Street Repairs in 2004, his poetry was still more admired outside Canada than inside. This despite the fact that he had been publishing for almost 30 years and had done so much to enrich the literary culture of Canada through his tireless efforts as mentor, teacher, unpaid editor and befriender of the friendless. With its rich and deliberate language and startling meditative urgency, the collection seemed to be a refinement or crystallization of all he had written earlier. One could characterize it as a book where classicism and modernity butt heads benevolently, breaking out of the simple observational lyric and the polyphonic long-form poetry that are the norms of Canadian poetic expression.

It was a summing-up that allowed him to proceed to The Sentinel (2008), which won him the Griffin Poetry Prize. That honour has come at the expense of Night Street Repairs; the two books can profitably be read together. In the one case, a philosopher of language and Catholic anarchist at mid-life. In the other, a mellower fellow in his early 60s, sifting through the past and returning to love and eroticism.

George Fetherling's new collection The Sylvia Hotel Poems will be published in March.

MOLLY PEACOCK

Two extraordinary books, a novel and a graphic memoir, written by women two generations apart and two worlds apart, exploded in the past decade, both published in France and written in French, the second language of both authors. In the flabbergasting surprises of the cultural shifts of the first 10 years of the 21st century, one could be the literary mother of the other, and that's why they double for my Book of the Decade.

Story continues below advertisement

The older-generation novelist is the rediscovered Jewish Russian émigré Irène Némirovsky, who wrote the astonishing Suite Française in a cramped notebook that lay in a trunk her daughter did not have the heart to open for more than 50 years after Némirovsky died in the Holocaust. The younger-generation writer is Iranian émigré Marjane Satrapi, whose brilliant graphic memoir Persepolis, about a young girl in the midst of the Islamic Revolution, helped create the renaissance of graphic fiction and nonfiction.

Each of this unlikely duo wrote about fleeing (as indeed each fled, Nemirovsky first from the Russian Revolution, then from the Nazis, and Satrapi from the Islamic Revolution). Both worked with rapid-pulse current details that give their work an as-it's-happening feel, whether it's Parisians streaming into the countryside just ahead of the Nazis or a girl from Iran escaping to Vienna. Both wrote/write as exiles, both from Paris, both with wicked senses of humour about the extreme political situations that formed them. There's nothing calmly retrospective in these books; they're history alive.

These writers prove that description - minute, savage, amusing, warm-to-the-touch description - is knowledge, even in the face of the incomprehensible. Because of their dislocation, these piercing soul-mate works seem to belong to the world.

Molly Peacock is the author of The Second Blush and the general series editor for The Best Canadian Poetry in English.

SARAH MacLACHLAN

Zadie Smith's White Teeth is the sort of novel every literary publisher dreams of assisting to market, a great Dickensian tale of contemporary Britain that brims with plot and was, at the turn of the millennium, and still is, remarkably politically and socially prescient. Everything we are contending with now - all the pressures and conflicts and complicated joys of our volatile multicultural world - are in this novel that still reads so invigoratingly new.

Story continues below advertisement

Sarah MacLachlan is the publisher of Anansi.

MARGARET SOMERVILLE

To choose the book of the decade I loved most or was most enlightening would be very difficult. But I have no problem in choosing the book that caused me the most trouble. It's Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, the bible of the fundamentalist neo-atheists.

The God Delusion was not challenging because serious or complex arguments were required to rebut Dawkins. He was on very thin ice intellectually. But it was hyped to such an extent in the media and the faithful so enamoured that it couldn't be ignored. Ironically, it made religion a topic of serious public discussion and elicited many other books.

David Adams Richards' recent God Is caused me to think The God Delusion should have been called "God Isn't," as together they represent the two sides in the "God debate." But why does this debate matter today?

I suggest that whether we abandon a belief in "Something," as Dawkins insists we should do, is the central question of our age. If we do so, it is extremely difficult to argue that humans are "special" and therefore deserve "special" respect. We are then just another animal and all the big moral-ethical questions we are facing - euthanasia, designing our children, cloning and so on, can be decided simply on utilitarian grounds. On the other hand, if we believe we are "special" in some mysterious way we don't rationally understand, but is nonetheless true and not irrational, the questions as to what we should and shouldn't do if we are to respect the essence of our humanness and hand it on to future generations will be answered differently.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University

JESSA CRISPIN

Kathryn Davis does not create novels so much as she creates worlds. Whether she's recreating every square inch of Versailles or composing with only words make-believe operas that seem so real you can practically hear the music humming through your head, Davis's novels are deeply immersive experiences.

The Thin Place doesn't so much have a narrative as it does a chorus. Every creature in the small New England town lifts up its voice, from the beavers to the lichen to the living and the dead. But it's not twee. Nor precious, affected, or a Marquez rip-off, if that's what you're thinking. It's an epic, that just happens to be about the lives of three 12-year-old girls. Even if one of them can resurrect the dead, it's hardly the traditional territory for an epic. And yet years later, it is my obvious choice for an outstanding book of the decade. It's a high point in Davis's career, and I'll go ahead and let loose the bombast: It will probably be a high point of the century as well.

Jessa Crispin runs the Bookslut website.

MIRIAM TOEWS

My book of the decade would definitely be Random Family (2003) by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. It's an amazing book, non-fiction, although it reads like the most beautifully written novel, about an extended family in the Bronx. LeBlanc is a journalist and spent 10 years documenting the family's struggles with poverty, drugs, parenthood, love and jail. It's an important social document and an incredibly compelling read. It's been my mission to get everybody I know to read this book. Miriam Toews's most recent novel is The Flying Troutmans.

DAVID STAINES

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006), and now Too Much Happiness (2009), a remarkable collection of 10 short stories which capture Alice Munro's increasingly harrowing study of the world around us. The writing is incomparable, the stories bleaker than in her earlier collections. In Child's Play, for example, an older woman, Marlene, looks back with seeming fondness at her young life at summer camp, recollecting especially the single event she and her good friend Charlene enacted. Now Charlene is dying, and Marlene returns to confront Charlene and the event. Too Much Happiness is perfect evidence that Munro is the finest short fiction writer in the English-speaking world.

David Staines is professor of English at the University of Ottawa and general editor of the New Canadian Library,

JOHN R. MacARTHUR

J. G. Ballard's memoir, Miracles of Life, bridges - in beautifully straightforward prose - the immense, hallucinatory gap between the traditional, pre-atomic world of my father's generation and the post-Nazi, post-Hiroshima instability of the present age. Not that Ballard tries to romanticize a mostly conventional colonial childhood in pre-war Shanghai. But somehow his early upbringing by orthodox British parents prepares him to interpret the tremendously violent, radical technological transformation to come - beginning with his family's internment in a Japanese prison camp.

Ballard's fiction is his justly celebrated legacy. But this book makes me wish he had written more non-fiction to help us endure distressing times. When Ballard's wife died unexpectedly in 1963, "many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical. ... I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary's death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful, ... Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest."

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine and author, most recently, of You Can't Be President.

CAMILLA GIBB

David Mitchell is a fearless writer - versatile and invigorating and in fortunate possession of more than enough talent to match his ambition. In Cloud Atlas - an exhilarating novel comprised of six linked narratives - Mitchell makes leaps across genre and geography, taking us from the 19th-century Pacific to a post-apocalyptic world and ports in between, by way of fantasy, thriller, fictional biography, contemporary and historical fiction.

Though the storytelling appears effortless, Mitchell makes structural demands of himself that would drive a lesser writer mad. While he compels his reader to sort out the puzzle - the sum of the parts - he manages, quite independently of this, to offer a thoroughly entertaining story woven around big ideas of history and power and the fate of humanity. Camilla Gibb's novel Sweetness in the Belly won Ontario's Trillium Prize in 2006.

DONNA MORRISSEY

After much deliberation I chose The Open Road, a story/analysis/report on the Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer. I've heard and read so much about the Dalai Lama; he is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and significant souls of the past century. Through Iyer's friendship with the Dalai Lama, we are able to see him in his dealings with his family, as well as his spiritual and political encounters. We get to see him as human and great, as I imagine Jesus must've been. I love how he doesn't have a formula for spirituality, for life, how he is a symbol that transcends all religions, how there is no requirement to be committed to some protocol, and I love how unifying that feels.

This book showed me that the Dalai Lama's media personage, is, indeed, a small part of his day. The greater part is taken with prayer - 10 hours. How simple is that? As a bonus, the book is beautifully written.

Donna Morrissey's most recent novel is What They Wanted.

RAMSAY COOK

For history buffs the first decade of the new century has produced an intellectual feast, sometimes from new recipes. Three wonderful biographies have been completed: Janet Browne on Charles Darwin (2002), Hilary Spurling on Henri Matisse (2005) and R. F. Foster on W. B Yeats (2005). The new field of environmental history has blossomed. Mark Mazower's Salonika: City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (2005) is a masterful and topical work.

But from the groaning board, I would unhesitatingly select, as the main course, the mind-expanding The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (2004) by C. A. Bayly. Its subtitle reveals its ambition: Global Connections and Comparisons. Rejecting "the grand teleologies" of national history, Bayly organizes his global history around themes that allow him to compare and contrast state building, war, gender relations, industrial development, the arts, religion and much more as humanity and its institutions evolved into modern form. This Cambridge historian reveals a depth of erudition and a breadth of knowledge that is breathtaking. This is a brilliant example of the new, transnational history that is the most important development in historical writing in the past decade.

Historian Ramsay Cook's books include Canada, Quebec and the Uses of Nationalism.

VICTORIA GLENDINNING

The book I just can't forget is The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006). A man and his little boy - neither is named - are walking from nowhere to nowhere for weeks and months, pushing their pathetic belongings in a shopping trolley, through a landscape scorched to cinders by some terrible terminal conflagration. They shuffle along through ashes, they breathe ashes, there is no vegetation, the light is grey, and it is cold. The burned-out towns are empty except for charred corpses. If they encounter living people, they flee; for humans are eating humans. The man and the boy grow weaker.

This spare, horribly credible and compelling narrative is illuminated by the trust and tenderness between father and son, "each the other's world entire." Love is just too woolly a word for it. The father, sick and starving, cannot protect his damaged son. But "goodness" may save the child. This is a brilliant, important, heart-breaking book. Don't read it just now if you are feeling particularly fragile, especially if you are a parent. I've read it twice, but I'm not sure that I want to see the movie. Victoria Glendinning is a British biographer and novelist.

ELIZABETH HAY

Sifting through the last decade, I recall one period of a few months when I was on a roll: Saramago's The Cave, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Richard Wright's Clara Callan, one pleasure after another.

But the book that raises its head most insistently is James Salter's collection Last Night for its story My Lord You, which I remember with thrilling clarity. A young woman meets an ungovernable, drunken poet at a party. He makes a dangerous impression on her. She bicycles to his house and instead of finding him finds his dog. The dog follows her. The way the story builds on itself and lays itself bare is so otherworldly and tender and naked in every sense that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It's a worthy successor to Chekhov's The Lady With the Pet Dog.

Elizbeth Hay won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Late Nights on Air. REX MURPHY

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a small book, not typical of McCarthy, certainly not of the author of Blood Meridian. The baroque prose, extremely lush sentences, and intense violence that are McCarthy's signature are not present. Nor is the straining after mystical effect through his characteristically heightened language, and epic descriptions of landscape.

Instead The Road is spare, almost in the manner that Hemingway at his best was spare, particularly the Hemingway of The Old Man and the Sea. The Road has the same sharp, affecting, lyric "hit." It is both hard to read (the shadowed threat to the boy is a continuous cruel suspense) and impossible to stop reading.

The Road does so much with so little. McCarthy, who treats language as a symphony of effects, lays aside the great resources of his Melvillian style, and achieves great emotional power with the faultless telling in a plain manner, against the grimmest background, of a familial love story.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup.

BARBARA GOWDY

Of my many favourite books from the past decade, I have chosen a collection of short fiction that contains a story as touching and wise as anything I have ever read. The story is Pangbourne, and the book is The People on Privilege Hill by British author Jane Gardam.

Published in 2007, when Gardam was 79, the book offers heartening evidence that certain minds only sharpen with age. Gardam's style is retrained, even delicate. Because her characters are so vivid, however, and her observations so shrewd - often very funny - the effect is one of expansiveness. Reading these stories, you feel as if you're getting the cream of a life devoted to listening, watching, reflecting, marvelling and accepting.

Barbara Gowdy's most recent novel is Helpless.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

I know what the rules of this exercise are, but I fear I have to break them all. Literature does not move quickly enough for us to immediately understand its effect on our consciousness. (Even the confident Balzac, who died in 1850, said he would only be recognized in 1880.) If I ask myself what work shattered me most and altered my vision of the world, it would still have to be that first novella-like sequence in Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, or it might be the fugitive voice of W. G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn. Nothing comes close to those inconsolable images of a boy and a wolf, or of a man after a breakdown walking along the east coast of England.

However, one writer I read this last year is, I think, one of the great and most overlooked writers of our time. John Ehle, from North Carolina, is now 84, and is still shockingly unknown. It has taken a small press, Down Home Books, to begin republishing his work in the last two or three years. The Landbreakers is a great American novel, way beyond anything most New York literary icons have produced. And that is only one of several remarkable novels, though the one a reader new to Ehle should begin with.

Michael Ondaatje's most recent novel is Divisadero.

PETER SCOWEN

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling account of the life of the legendary racehorse and the colourful people in his stable is the only book I have ever read that made me jump out of my seat in excitement. Her infarct-inducing description of the historic match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral at Pimlico in 1938 was what did it. The writing is so vivid that I can still feel its effects in the simple act of recalling the book eight years later. Much of the excitement is owing to Hillenbrand placing the showdown in the multiple contexts behind the story: the pain of the Depression; the captivating nature of an exceptionally talented but lazy (and mischievous) horse; the bad luck of Seabiscuit's main jockey, Canadian-born Red Pollard. The book is as rich as the people and the animal whose stories it recounts.

Peter Scowen is the web editor for Globe Books.

STEVE PAIKIN

Let me acknowledge my biases. I am more partial to non-fiction than fiction. I love a great read about politics over anything else (except maybe baseball). And, having written a book about former Ontario premier John Robarts (born Jan. 11), I have a thing for politicians born on that day.

So it should come as no surprise that my book of the decade is Richard Gwyn's John A: The Man Who Made Us, analyzing the achievements of our first prime minister, yes, born Jan. 11 (as was Jean Chrétien).

Gwyn takes us back to the birth of the country, and the singular, indispensable influence Macdonald wielded to give life to his vision called Canada. He is such a master storyteller, he does the one thing everyone says is impossible to do - make a page-turner out of Canadian history.

Steve Paikin is host of the public-affairs program The Agenda on TVOntario.

PETER C. NEWMAN

What makes a book memorable is that you remember how it touched you. Victor Suthren's The Island of Canada, an intuitive portrait of Canada as an island (surrounded by three oceans and in the south by an intricate network of streams, rivers and lakes) struck just such a note. Suthren set out to prove -and did so with the gusto of a true believer - that sub-consciously, Canadians are water creatures.

"There is no nation with a greater physical connection to the sea," he wrote, reflecting novelist Clark Blaise's epiphany about "the parenting effect of water on the Canadian imagination." I remember being told, before one of my marriages, that if I married an island girl, I would marry the island. It was true, except that in this case the island proved to be Canada. It's a romantic notion of nationhood, but as an avid sailor, I find it both authentic and comforting.

Peter C. Newman's books include the memoir Here be Dragons.

ANDREW PYPER

Part of the overwhelming power of Cormac McCarthy's novels are the ways they mark an end to things. Blood Meridian is a horrific farewell to the false perception of the Wild West, and No Country for Old Men the last chapter for understandable villainy and understandable justice. But until The Road, McCarthy was kicking dirt onto distinctly American coffins. The Road marks the end of the world, which places the breadth of all it says good-bye to beyond history, beyond culture - beyond the literary decade to which it once belongs and transcends. For me, it's not its apocalyptic finality that lends The Road its importance (after all, half of all literate 16-year-olds alive today have at least attempted a zombie novel), nor its prose (characteristically biblical, but flying at a lower altitude than Blood Meridian), but rather its clear and immediate status as lasting myth. I wasn't halfway through The Road when I knew that not only would I never again be able to imagine The End without it, but that the world wouldn't either.

Andrew Pyper's most recent novel is The Killing Circle.

ANTONY BEEVOR

If the book of the decade can include the trilogy of the decade, then it must be Javier Marías's monumental Your Face Tomorrow. Together the three parts constitute one of the great novels in modern European literature. The protagonist, Jacques Deza, is an anglophile Spaniard working for a secret department in London closely connected to British intelligence. Their task is to concentrate on the faces and body language of selected subjects, and by thus deciphering their characters, attempt to predict their actions.

Twisting like the double-helix of human DNA, shame and guilt, power and impotence, treachery and loyalty, domination and humiliation, love and hate, the past and the present all revolve in this extraordinary and unashamed novel of ideas. It is quite unlike any other work of literature

Historian Anthony Beevor's most recent work is D-Day.

PETER STOTHARD

It's The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, edited by Richard A. Talbert. Classicists have never before had maps which show only what was there in the ancient world, not what came or was considered important later. So these maps, elegantly and expensively researched on North American money, are a mass of pink-and-green open space, pictures of a teeming emptiness and a wonderful guide to the wordless lessons of antiquity. Every one who studies Greece and Rome owes them a personal debt, mine being the inspiration to put me onto the 2,000-mile route through Italy of the Spartacus slave war and to write a history and a memoir that otherwise would not have happened. These are magic maps that will last until the "noughties" of the next century at least.

Peter Stothard is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. MICHAEL R. MARRUS

Reading (partly) for a living, and on grim subjects at that, I especially savoured the psychologically upbeat and brilliantly colourful Them: a Memoir of Parents (2005), by Franco-American writer Francine du Plessix Gray. At the centre of the crowd of personalities whom young Francine endured and admired were her maddeningly eccentric, furiously social climbing and dazzlingly creative Russian émigré parents: the suave, cultivated Jewish cosmopolitan Alexander Liberman, slavishly devoted to his wife but utterly ruthless as a lord of American taste and fashion; and the imperious, drug-dependent beauty, Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman, once the muse of the brooding Soviet poet, Victor Mayakovsky. Tatiana created a phenomenal postwar niche as the hat designer at Saks Fifth Avenue, shaping not only what went on women's heads, but also how they should think about style and socializing. As a mother, she was selfish, distant and neglectful. Francine's stepfather Alexander rose from the art department of Vogue to become editorial head of the vast Condé Nast publishing empire.

We must all come to terms with our parents, and this can be the task of a lifetime. Watching someone as talented as Gray undertake this challenge would be compelling enough, but with the background panorama of the Russian Revolution, Nazism and the intimate family life of the ultimate power couple - it's like a voyage to another social planet in business class. Gray pulls this off with a generosity that is surprising given all she suffered from her parents' narcissism.

Michael Marrus's most recent book is Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s.

MARTIN LEVIN

Although I'm tempted to go with Jane Gardam's magnificent Old Filth, for me the knock-your-socks-off book was Ian McEwan's Atonement. It's a complex, emotionally and psychologically nuanced, enormously subtle tale of betrayal and misinterpretation, about how entire lives are manipulated by circumstances, all set in the years surrounding the Second World War (McEwan's depiction of the retreat from Dunkirk is masterful). Finally, it's also a novel about novel writing and, among various acts of atonement featured, this novel itself constitutes a spectacular one.

Martin Levin is Books editor of The Globe and Mail

JOHN RALSTON SAUL

You ask for one book, I think of three. Joseph Boyden's Three-Day Road, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes and Yann Martel's Life of Pi. I think they represent a new conception of literature, of Canadian literature, of Canadian literature in the world. They bring Canadian fiction to a new place because they see the world - ours and the world outside - from what feels like a whole new point of view. Of course, it isn't new. It's real, and it's always revolutionary to have reality pointed out to you in such an engaging way

John Ralston Saul's most recent book is A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies