My Favorite Book


My Favorite Book

Last night, my writing group threw the table open for discussion on ‘my favorite book’. I listened as each member of the group came up with a title or two and then chose a book that was ‘the favorite’. When my turn came, I was last, they all turned to me, but I remained silent for a long time and then: “I can’t do it,” I said. “I bet it’s got windmills in,” one person remarked, thinking of my propensity of frequently quoting Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a model when literary discussions arise. Indeed, Don Quixote might be my favorite book, but is it?

Let us begin with the concept of book. Is a book something contained between two covers or could it be a series of books? For example, does one choose between The Chronicles of Narnia or must one select The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over The Silver Chair? Is one free to choose The Lord of the Rings, or must one prefer The Two Towers, say, to The Return of the King? By extension, where exactly does The Hobbit stand, as a book, in book form, in relationship to the later and longer series? Or The Silmarion? Again, can we roll them all together, a series of books under the cover of one book, a favorite book?

The idea of favorite author versus favorite book then surfaced and we discussed Georgette Heyer, John LeCarré, equally loved and loathed, Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, J. K. Rowling, and William Shakespeare. The mention of Shakespeare led us into plays as reading material and plays as performance, and performance as on stage or on film. One of our members loved Shakespeare on film and TV, but didn’t like reading Shakespeare, because it was ‘difficult to read and needed the interpretation of the actor for the meaning to come across’. This same person did not like LeCarré’s books, but was very appreciative of his work on film. Where does George Smiley begin and Alec Guinness end, one asks? How can we separate the character from the actor? Applied to James Bond, who is James Bond? Is he Sean Connery (totally unique and my personal favorite), Roger Moore (better for me in the role of Simon Templar, The Saint), or one of the later and newer actors who have taken over the role? By extension, should James Bond be played by a black actor (why ever not I ask?), and could (oh horror of horrors!), a female actor take over that role (I’d love to see it … “I’m Bond. Jane Bond!”)?

This led us into the art of the narrative and the relationship between book as narrative and film as narrative. Clearly they are two different forms of media, but how do they influence each other? The book obviously comes first. We can talk of the seventeenth century novel, but it is difficult to talk of the seventeenth century film. So, the linear narrative of the book comes first and then that book is turned into a film. However, a film contains its own narratives structures and these include multiple points of view, split screens, flashbacks and time distortions, and a multiplicity of other devices among which the actual scenic impact is of the utmost importance. For most of us, the nineteenth century novel (no radio and no television for entertainment in those days) is long drawn out and very slow moving. We miss the instantaneous impact of screen and TV with the breaks for advertisements and the time to recharge our coffee cups and snacks. This leads us to our own attention spells as readers and our own demands for the instant gratification of a thrill a minute. “Hook them on page one and addict them by page three,” one person commented to many nods from around the table.

But the mention of Don Quixote also takes us into other areas. In this age of bi- and multi-lingualism, do we prefer to read our books in one language rather than in an another? Don Quixote in Spanish or French or English? And which translation? There are some twenty translations of Don Quixote into English. Is one preferable to another? Which is more accurate in the terms of a translation? Which reads more easily in terms of a re-creation in artistic form of the original? Should we prefer an English-English translation to an American-English translation? And where oh where is the Australian, Indian, Pakistani, South African, Canadian, Irish, or Welsh translator who will justify that famous text in his own country’s rendition of what used to be called the King or the Queen’s English?

Don Quixote, according to the great Spanish literary critics, is a book for the three ages of life. Readers should read it when they are young, when they are middle aged, and when they are approaching old age. Why? Because one’s reading and understanding of the book changes as one grows older. If this is true, then can we not expect to have books that we preferred at an earlier age in life, The House at Pooh Corner, for example, or The Wind in the Willows? And what about our early teens (adolescence), our early twenties (university years)? The idea of our being able to choose a ‘favorite book’ becomes less and less clear as we open up our minds to the broader horizon of tastes that change as we age and mature.

You will have noted that, with the exception of Shakespeare, we concentrated on the twin ideas of fiction and narrative, be it in word or on the screen. What about poetry? Five major critics met at the Modern Language Association of America’s meeting held one year in the University of Toronto and held a panel discussion in which they discussed why and how they had been attracted to the foreign language that they had studied. In four of the five cases, it was the poetry of the language, not the theatre or the narrative, that had pulled them in. Last night, we did not discuss poetry.

When we bring poetry to the table, we open a different discussion. We rarely read and appreciate ‘books of poetry’. With a few notable exceptions, it is individual poems and poets that attract our attention, rather than entire books or collections. And what is it about poetry that attracts us? Surely, it is the power, not of situation nor of action, but of language. It is the sheer power of language and the thrill of words that draws us to poetry. Perhaps that is why, in an age of impatience, we have less time for immersion in the magic spell of words and their undercurrents of subtle meanings. As a friend of mine said to me, the day before yesterday, “I started your poetry book, Obisdian’s Edge, but it was too deep for me, too difficult. I gave up on it. I needed something simpler to read.”

Comment: This article should be read in association with an earlier piece in this blog (15 July 2016) on My Top Ten Books.

New Brunswick Book Awards

It was quite the surprise, but I am very happy to see that my book of Flash Fiction Short Stories, BISTRO, is one of the three finalists in this year’s New Brunswick Book Awards, organized jointly by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick (WFNB) and The Fiddlehead. It’s great to see that self-published books can get recognition at the highest (for me) level. Thank you to all who are involved in organizing this annual book award.

Bistro Cover.jpg

Bistro is available online at

Here’s the link to the Writers Federation of New Brunswick / Fiddlehead New Brunswick Book Awards short list page


My Top Ten Books


My Top Ten Books

For Tanya Cliff

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it, to choose your ten favorite books? But really: it isn’t.

Clare’s great aunt made the best sponge cakes and rock cakes I have ever tasted. Her formula? Not weights and measures but a simple scale: the egg on one side, the flour on the other — and balance them.

How do I weigh a book?

I think in terms of authors rather than their individual books. For example, on one side of the scale place Les Fleurs du Mal of Baudelaire and on the other, his Petits Poèmes en Prose. Literary and cultural history would opt for Les Fleurs du Mal, and quite rightly so. My own personal preference, and I love them both, is for Petits Poèmes en Prose. De gustibus non est disputando / there is no arguing over taste. My choice is for Baudelaire, the author, rather than for one of his works, selected above the other.

If I apply this theory to other authors, what happens to, for example, William Shakespeare? Must I choose MacBeth over Henry the Fifth,  King Lear over Julius Caesar or A Midsummer Night’s Dream over The Merchant of Venice? And what if I refuse to do so? I would much rather choose Shakespeare over any of his plays, the Complete Works, including the sonnets, over any single play. And why shouldn’t I?

By extension, should I choose Shakespeare over Lope de Vega? Corneille over Molière? Racine over Calderón de la Barca? Mira de Amescua over Jean Anouilh? Bernard Shaw over Samuel Becket or Beaumarchais or Ionesco? And look at how Euro-centric (English, French, and Spanish) I am, especially when I am not familiar with the great playwrights of other Western nations: the Russians, the Norwegians, the Germans … and yet they are all Europeans. Are there no other literary nations in the world? Of course there are, but I am not that familiar with their literature and culture, and there is only so much a reader can read in its original form.

So, blessed and privileged as I admit I am, I can read books in English, French, and Spanish … lucky for me. However, I admit to difficulties with books written in Portuguese, Italian, German, Catalan, and Galician. As for Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, Arabic … I can only offer my apologies, but for me, these are closed books and I can only reach them in the translations, however good, however bad, that are placed before me. This is true too of the Pre-Columbian Mexican codices, the Zouche-Nuttall, the Vindobonensis et. al. These are also books and they outline the peoples and cultures of Mexico as they were before the arrival and conquest orchestrated by Cortés. And let us not forget Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the man who, in later life, wrote the true history of  Cortés’s conquest. And speaking of conquests, how about Julius Caesar’s Bellum gallicum, his personal account, in the third person, of his conquest of Gaul? As a school boy, long ago, I struggled through it in Latin, but I enjoyed it later, in translation.

Translation: traductor / traidor, according to Cervantes, who was undoubtedly following someone else, means translation / betrayal … or does it? Translation: the reverse side of a tapestry (also Cervantes) from which we may through a glass, darkly, glimpse only shape and shadow while stumbling over all those knotted threads … so here’s another question:  why would we choose a translation, with all its flaws, over a work we can read and enjoy and hopefully understand in the original?

So far, I have mentioned mainly playwrights; Cervantes was a playwright and wrote a goodly number of plays (Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses). I should also mention novelists. Charles Dickens, for example; or Honoré de Balzac or Gustave Flaubert or Marcel Proust or Pío Baroja or Benito Pérez Galdós or Gabriel García Márquez or Carlos Fuentes or William Faulkner or Kurt Vonnegut or William Golding or Chuck Bowie or John Sutherland or Kevin Stephens … not to mention Charlotte Bronte … Emily Bronte … Jane Austen … Virginia Woolf … Should I then choose just ten novelists and forget the world’s playwrights? And how can I choose just one book from a single novelist’s vast production, think Trollope, think Balzac?

What about poetry? My ten favorite poems? My ten favorite books of poetry? My ten favorite poets? Perhaps the latter is more achievable. If that is so, I must then choose between Quevedo … Góngora … Antonio Machado … Juan Ramón Jiménez … José Hierro … Wilfred Owen … Dylan Thomas … Gerard Manley Hopkins … Baudelaire … Verlaine … Rimbaud … Prévert … R. S. Thomas … Federico García Lorca … Miguel Hernández … T. S. Eliot … Seamus Heaney … Pedro Salinas … José María Valverde … and how do I choose between the writers I know and love … Patrick Lane … Richard Lemm … Fred Cogswell … Norman Levine … Donna Morrissey … Susan Musgrave … Joan Clark … Erin Mouré … and the ones I work with on a regular basis … Jane Tims … Kathy Mac … Shari Andrews … Michael Pacey … allison Calvern … Ian LeTourneau … Judy Wearing … Rachelle Smith … Cheryl Archer … Judith Mackay … Julie Gordon … ten poets … ten books … ten poems … ten fingers … ten toes … ten commandments … only ten?

Hold on a second: I have forgotten St. John of the Cross / San Juan de la Cruz, one of the western world’s great mystics. I must also mention St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the catholic church, and Fray Luis de León, and now I am about to enter a great cloud of unknowing in which mystics, some named, some unnamed, have blessed us with their life thoughts and works.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold … and I have also forgotten W. B. Yeats and James Joyce and I have failed to remember the Poema de Mío Cid and the anonymous epic poems and ballads of the European middle ages, some of which are so deliciously delightful. Alas, I will be forced to abandon so many of my teachers and my friends … ten books, ten speeches, ten lectures, ten words … my life in literature reduced to ten teaspoons of instant coffee, instant tea, instant knowledge.

“My friends, we will not go again
nor ape an ancient rage;
nor let the folly of our youth
become the shame of age.”

Oh yes, that’s G. K. Chesterton. I had forgotten him. When asked what book he would take with him to read in exile on a desert island, he replied: “Green’s Practical Manual of Ship Building and Ship Sailing.” Now that’s a book that should be in everybody’s top ten, especially with the seas rising and disaster lurking round every corner of the suspicious, weather-warmed mind.

However, as I look back on my reading life, believe it or not, some books do stand out. When I entered graduate school and realized the enormous amount of reading that was being thrust upon me, I took a speed reading course. Over the ten weeks of that course my reading speed rose sharply from about 200 words a minute to 800 words a minute. Without that one book, I would have been unable to read so many of the others. Where is it now? It is not on my shelves: ah yes, I gave it to my daughter when she went to law school.

The second special book is the Spanish text book that, in regularly updated versions, I relied on for teaching basic Spanish grammar throughout my academic career in Canada. Without that textbook and the employment it ensured me, I would not have been able to put my family’s bread on the table. I guess you might call it influential. Perhaps the third special book is my own doctoral thesis: that allowed me to gain academic employment and is so very, very special to me, but for all the wrong reasons.

Ladies and Gentlemen and Fellow Bloggers, here I am, marooned in Island View, with not an island in sight, and no reason, as yet, to build a librarian’s arc. I will now replace my selected books and authors back on the shelves from which, one by one, I have taken them down, dusted them off, and glanced through the pages. I admit my inadequacy. I cannot for the life of me choose ten books, let alone ten authors. I lay down my pen. I remove my fingers from the keyboard. I abandon my task. Soon I will leave the room with one of my favorite books in my hand. Will it be Jane Tims’s Within Easy Reach or Chuck Bowie’s Steal it all or John Sutherland’s master work, The Two-Shot Compendium. I think I’ll go with Two-Shot and re-read the first story, Two-Shots Lands in Trouble, as I sip my mid-morning coffee. Meanwhile, I will leave you with this thought from Guillaume Apollinaire.

Je voudrais dans ma maison
une femme ayant sa raison,
un chat passant parmi les livres,
et des amis en toute saison,
sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre.