canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


The Danforth Review asked a high school class in Montreal to tell us what their favorite book was and why. The results may surprise you.

INTRODUCING THE STUDENTS: Montreal's Loyola High School is a 107-year-old all-boys school run by the Jesuits; being a Quebec high school, it ends after grade eleven, so the graduating students are sixteen going on seventeen years old. I teach the Advanced English class, an assemblage of literary keeners who've just wolfed down Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude, Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, stories by Mark Anthony Jarman and Flannery O'Connor and a myriad other scriveners. This week I asked my boys to describe their favorite novel in 300 words. They laughed at the news of yet another assignment - "Are you being absurdist, Sir?" - and then got down to work. Here it is. - Harold Hoefle

Patrick Sandrin Night by Elie Wiesel
Lorne Ferguson 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Eric Zimanyi Animal Farm by George Orwell
Nicolas Yeung Blood of Karensky Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole
Anthony Bider-Hall Favorite Book Not Available
Beba Barone The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Edward Ocampo-Gooding Visions of the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Benjamin Villarreal The Wars by Timothy Findley
Mark Zurfluh The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Daniel Kushnir Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers
Paolo Pazzia The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Daniel Piech All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Gabe Camozzi Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
Sean Ryan Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner

Patrick Sandrin: Night by Elie Weisel

A book that has had a big impact on me was Night by Elie Weisel. This memoir is the authorís non-fictional account of his Holocaust ordeal. Night has to be the most powerful piece of literature that I have read to date. It vividly depicts the horrific scenes of the Holocaust through realistic and powerful descriptions and sensory details. In my opinion, the most powerful description was the "smell of death" in the air at the concentration camps. The author meant this quite literally, as ashes of burning flesh could be smelt miles away. This book has taught me much about racism and how it is a spreading epidemic in our world today. Racism must be eradicated, and a memoir such as Night works towards this goal.

Lorne Ferguson: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Ever since I started reading, I have always really enjoyed books. Some were for school, so I didnít read them for pleasure so much as because I had to. For me, reading them because I had to ruins it for me, because I donít pay as much attention to the whole story. I could read the whole book through and remember only a few parts. Eventually, I forget even those. So I decided on what, for me, makes a good book.

For me, a good book needs to keep me awake when I read it, no matter where I am, in bed, in class or on the bus. It has to keep me wanting to find out what happens next, but I should also be able to down if I have to.

I donít care how many characters there are in the story, as long as theyíre interesting and different. I donít want some characters having similar traits, unless it fulfils some prophecy. Everyone has to be an individual.

I love when a story I read has a great description of a location. If, when I put the book down, I can still see that place in my mind, then I think itís a good book. People should be able to escape into the books they read, at least as long as theyíre reading it. Itís like youíre a part of it, and thatís something important: being able to feel like youíre in the story.

One book that qualifies is Gabriel Garcia Marquezís One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book was over 400 pages, but extremely interesting the whole way through. I couldnít put the book down.

Eric Zimanyi: Animal Farm by George Orwell

All writers are affected to a certain extent by the social and political climate, the zeitgeist of their time. One of the authors for whom this appears most clearly in his writing is George Orwell, one of the great political writers of the last seventy years. I find his virtuosity at writing political novels is best expressed in one of his later works, Animal Farm, a satire of the Russian Revolution. In this novel, the animals on a farm expel the farmer and attempt to operate the farm themselves. The original idea is welcomed by all, but things go awry when the pigs begin to accumulate power and stray from the original doctrine.

This novel deftly weaves most major events from the Russian Revolution into the farm setting. The most effective means of persuasion are those in which the reader does not realize he is being converted. At the time Animal Farm was written, many people had strong opinions about communism and the communist revolution. By placing similar events in a different setting, Orwell sneaks behind this defensive barrier and speaks more directly to the reader.

Throughout the novel, Orwell uses a strong, biting satire that had me laughing out loud at several places in the book. For example, he chooses a hoof and horn as the emblem for the farm nation, an obvious parody of the Soviet star and sickle. No character, no event is without hidden meaning, and discovering Orwellís intention behind each element is one of the things that makes reading this novel so enjoyable.

Nicolas Yeung: Blood of Kerensky Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole

This series of books is among my favorite reads ever. Granted the Battletech universe is a massive one and getting into the story is a little challenge but once your in itís for good. Stackpoleís use of character conflicts in this series is incredible, you almost feel like you are the characters. And the way in which events happen is depicted clearly and concisely.

Anthony Bider-Hall: Favorite Book Not Available

Being sixteen years of age and of a generation of instant gratification, I have not exactly read a great deal of literature. Sure, I have read a few books for my English classes here and there, and I went through a phase of reading utopian and distopian fiction, including the grand repertoire of Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, Darkness at Noon, but I have hardly read enough books of the literary canon to say that I have a justifiable favorite. Allow me to explain why.

Arguably, anyone can have a favorite book if he or she has read more than one. The preference becomes the favorite. However, during humanityís brief civilizing history on this planet, the literate minority of this earth has managed to turn out an astonishing number of literary works. Though the ratio of so-called "good writing" to the mediocre and non-applicable writing (such as laws and official documents) is expectedly low, the actual number of works is still quite astounding for 6000 years of writing.

Let us introduce Curious Joe. Joe must ask himself, after seeing the mass of writings produced, how he will ever sift through that material and find the one and only book for him-the Favorite Book. First, Joe must decide on the language of choice as well as those written in another tongue, which must be translated. Then comes the sifting.

The sifting was originally done by merciful teachers of schools and universities who themselves had acquired their orthodox literary training from those who had sifted before. This practice eventually acquired a name: academia. This academia stuff was the only way Joe could ever aspire to knowing what his favorite book in the whole world is. He had to rely on the judgment of his academic superiors.

So much for Joe. The point is that there is so much to read. Joe could afford the time because he is of an imaginary aristocratic family in Britain, which can miraculously still afford to keep a house for itself. Late 20th and early 21st century Canadian youths, unlike their minority counterpart in the United States, do not read the "classics" on which much English-language writing is based. It is also a fact that Canadian youths spend the free time that, in the pre-WWII world, would have been used for sports and reading, in front that conspiratorial entertainer and creativity-killer, the television. The average high school student could sooner name you a television show that he liked, versus a book that could have provided a similar satisfaction. Compounding the problem is the fact that we, Canadian students, do not even spend as much time reading classic literature in the classroom as we spend counting molecules in a science lab. Most students out of high school have not even read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or Beowulf, just to name a few.

The above is not to say that I have not read any important literature or that I watch 22.7 hours of television per week. I am simply saying that I have neither the wide range of reading experience with different styles of writing, nor the confidence in my ability to conduct critical analysis on that which I read. I can only provide my limited point of view when I read a novel or a short story, and judge that work accordingly. So to be fair, I must say that I have no favorite book about which to write because I have not read enough to know what else is out there and because my analysis of the book would be ignorant and narrow-minded compared to that of an educated scholar.

Beba Barone: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Rather than choose one of the classics as my favorite book, (War and Peace, et al) I chose something perhaps a little more stereotypical, but definitely one of my favorite books. The Godfather was written by Mario Puzo in 1969, and became an instant best seller. The movie, which came out in 1972, was a smash hit from day one, and still is.

The Godfather offers readers a glimpse into the life and times of the Corleone family, from its only surviving member Vito coming to America in 1909 to his subsequent rise to the top of the organized crime hierarchy. Eventually, Vito Corleone dies, and from there we see the youngest son, Michael, the one who no one ever expected to inherit the family business, become the Don, through the brutal murder of his older brother Santino (Sonny) and the incompetence of his other brother, Fredo.

The Godfather is a book that lets the reader see the "glory days" of the Mafia in North America, the days before incorruptible police offers and restrictive governments. The days when the Mafia ruled with an iron fist, clad in a velvet political glove. When the Mafia respected its thousand-year-old law of Omerta, never to go to the authorities regarding an issue between two Mafiosi.

Puzo brilliantly depicts the ever toughening restrictions by the government in the later years of the "glory days", and the Corleone Familyís eventual forced escape to Las Vegas, to flee the law in New York.

This book is my favorite for one simple reason: it gives the reader an incredible sense of nostalgia, not for crime, but for the days when someone could earn a living his own way, and not have to have the law breathing down his neck every minute of his life.

Edward Ocampo-Gooding: Visions of the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

My favorite book is Visions of the Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. Kahlil Gibran was born in 1883 in Lebanon. He lived in the Middle East until 1921, when he moved to the United States. His books were originally written in Arabic, but have been translated into twenty languages. Gibran was not only a mystical poet, but also a philosopher, and artist who has been compared to people like Rodin, the French sculptor, to the English author, William Blake.

The title Visions of the Prophet was intended to not only give a mystical light on the book, but as to be able to go with a recently published companion volume: Eye of the Prophet. This collection of Gibranís translated works (first published in English in 1997) was meant to "reveal a quixotic, passionate Gibran unrevealed in earlier works." This it does well, as the book demonstrates a slightly different style of Gibran. Poems and stories are still very concise, the point that they get across is of great magnitude. There are still such lines as "You are yourself and you are everything. That is why you will continue to exist for ever" (110). However, one of the differences that I noted was that the book has more of an Arabian feel to it. There are more references to Middle East than you would find in some of his other collections, like The Prophet. It is this spin on everything in the book that I find interesting, because I have not read anything like it before.

Benjamin Villarreal: The Wars by Timothy Findley

Having read several novels and short stories about the world wars, narratives told from many different perspectives, but I would have to say that Timothy Findleyís The Wars is by far the best. The novel was published in 1977, some fifty years after the "war to end all wars," but I believe it still captures well the many horrors of war - on and off the battlefield, in the trenches and war-room, visiting the hospitals and being a patient in them, "living" in Europe and getting back home.

The story is told as the narrative of a person researching the life of Robert Ross, in particular one major event concerning "the horses," an event disclosed at the novelís climax. The narrator begins with Robert, a young man who gives up his proposal of marriage and joins the Canadian Armed Forces as an artilleryman after his twenty-five-year-old hydrocephalic sister dies - an event he blames upon himself. What ensues is an onslaught of tragedy and death, threatening to wash over Robert. Miraculously, he overcomes many of these challenges; they strengthen him for what he is to do with the horses at the novelís near-end. Sadly, Findley also shows what war does to a family - a very tearful theme in itself. The Wars is a short but engrossing read that will prove you still donít know every side to the world wars.

Mark Zurfluh: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I guess my favorite novel has to be J.D. Salingerís The Catcher in the Rye. I havenít read it in a while, but I still remember identifying with Holden Caulfield - which probably says more about my lack of sanity than anything else.

Salinger uses descriptions and dialogue that seem very real, very much like the way a seventeen-year-old boy, who has gone through a lot of anguish, might feel. The way Holden constantly contradicts himself is a good example of this, as well as how little things upset him, like ranting on for several paragraphs about how horrible it is that people seem to write "Fuck you" all over the place. Meanwhile, the guy swears more than anyone else does. In my experience, this is exactly the way teenagers behave.

Another sign that is a well-written book is that it seems to transcend the generations. As long ago as this book was written, anyone who wasnít even literate at the fall of the Berlin Wall can identify with the novel. Salinger spends little time treating the issues of Holdenís day, and focuses more on the hardships of adolescence.

Lastly, what really makes love this novel - but also frightens me at the same time - is that when I read it, I see a plethora of traits in Holden that I also see in myself. The way he deals with anger, his views on other people and society in general, all similar very familiar to mine.

Daniel Kushnir: Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers 

"The inimitable stories of Tong-king never have any real ending, and this one, being in his most elevated style, has even less end than most of them. But the whole narrative is permeated with the odour of joss-sticks and honourable high-mindedness, and the two characters are both of noble birth." -The Wallet of Kai-Lung 

This is the first thing we read in Dorothy Sayersí second novel, Clouds of Witness. This story is part of a series featuring her own amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, D.S.O. His lordship Wimsey is an extraordinary character. Unlike so many heroes, he is not dashing and good looking. Wimsey is not especially tall (5 foot 8) has blond hair, a decidedly aristocratic face with a beak-like nose. In addition, he is not a one-dimensional character. He has a love for music, is an immense bibliophile and is most often found quoting obscure bits of poetry. 

Clouds of Witness, first published in 1927, is the story of Lord Peterís brother, His Grace, The Duke of Denver, being arrested for allegedly murdering his younger sisterís (Lady Mary Wimsey) fiancť, Captain Denis Cathcart. Lord Peter, being an amateur sleuth, decides that is in the best interest of his brother and the family, to investigate. Along with a Chief Inspector sent for the Yard, and Lord Peterís indispensable man, Bunter they manage to clear the Wimsey name and save his brother from being hanged. 

I must convey that this is not your average clichť detective story from the golden age of crime. It is a book about more than just a country murder, it is a lesson in manners, even a critique of society. By reading this book, the reader learns all about bibliophily, how to properly appreciate authentic Napoleon brandy ("Drunk as a lord? As a class, they are really very sober" ĖĖthe honourable Judge Cluer) and the social attitudes of the roaring twenties. 

This is all possible because of the brilliance of the author, Dorothy Sayers. Miss Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University. She was also said to have an incredible knowledge of the printed word, always adding quotes by all types of authors and historical figures, from Adventures of Sexton Blake to Manon Lescaut and even Aliceís Adventures in Wonderland

Really this book, or rather series of books, is not just my favorite because it a mystery, but rather because it is so well-written. It is a more profound read than say, The Maltese Falcon. Real intellect is needed to read it; often there are pages written solely in French, Latin or Ancient Greek. I think that anyone could appreciate and enjoy all that this book, or any one the series has to offer. 

Paolo Pazzia: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Apart from being the overly clichť kind of teenager that I am, reading isnít exactly my favorite pastime. But, from what Iíve read, Iíve been able to learn. And the book I learned the most from had to be J.R.R. Tolkienís The Hobbit

First published in 1937, this book has been a classic in the eyes of many fiction lovers. It deals with the life and adventures of a little man by the name of Bilbo. Tolkienís fantasy is unlike any other. It is well crafted, and incredibly detailed. In the chapter called Riddles in the Dark, we really get to see Tolkienís imagination unfold. He speaks of wide-eyed fish-like creatures who speak in the third person, and whose favorite pastime is eating trolls or solving riddles. 

Tolkien has a great way of tending to his readers so that they donít wonder off or get bored; he does it through imagery, plot development (never-ending), and through the use of his great, multidimensional characters. All those who plan on reading The Lord Of the Rings and its various volumes should read this book; The Hobbit serves as a very handy introduction to the three-volume work that follows it and offers very clear information, which allows the reader to comprehend what it is Tolkien is talking about later on. The life of a troll seems very interesting through the eyes of Tolkien, but that of a HobbitÖ well, who can really say?

Daniel Piech: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front presents a clash between nature, humans, life, death and beauty. Erich Maria Remarque speaks the words of the animals at war. This is because he collected butterflies in his early years, while living in Germany. 

To fully understand the Great War, donít just read about the unbeatable American army or the peacekeepers of Canada. Read about the tyrants and soldiers in the German army. This book gives the viewpoint of the German soldiers. They were just as scared as the allies were. The loss of friends and comrades was suffered on both sides of the front. The author speaks of the deterioration of the German army in the days ending the war. 

The symbolism on the front was strong and gave soldiers hope. A pair of leather boots was handed from comrade to comrade, and the others waited until that person would die and another owner would be the one in comfort until his day comes. The boots gave the soldiers faith and hope. Hoping that one day they would all go back to Germany and live with their parents in the countryside, living an easy life. The soldiers discussed politics. How the Kaiser wouldnít care if they died or suffered. Its just another number gone for him.

I encourage people of all ages to read this book in order to understand the true nature of trench warfare. The years of living in the mud and scrounging for food. And staring the enemy right in the eye on the offensive. After all, this was the War to end all Wars. Look what happened twenty years later.

Gabe Camozzi: Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne 

why the bear beats all

"But you donít get honey with balloons!"
"I do," said Pooh. 

I have yet to read as childishly simple, as infinitely funny, and as ultimately innocent a book as I have when reading that great masterwork of our neighbor across the blue. Everything about this book enthralls me; the wonderful characters, charming dialogue, a shining of Pooh wisdom here and there (for a reference, read The Tao of Pooh; great stuff). 

Each time I read this novel, I look forward to a trip back in time, to when the imagination was allowed its wings to soar, and all we had to fear were Heffalumps, Woozles, and the odd honey shortage.  The life breathed into these characters is quite spectacular for a childrenís book, but then again, I suppose thatís what gives these characters their indelibly childish spirit. There is Rabbit, who is best described at being brainy, but clearly doesnít "understand anything." Pigletís constant fear of Hostile Animals is, for me, reminiscent of all those nights hiding under the blanket, taking refuge from the inevitable evil lurking in my dark closet with the intention of disemboweling me. 

To this day I feel very close to Owl, with whom I share a common weakness ? his preachy pontification reminds me of my ability to say things of great depth, which have absolutely no rational base to them, and in retrospect, make me sound like an idiot. Eeyore is a masterpiece of fiction: his permanent state of sarcastic depression is almost colourful coming from Milneís pen. Tigger is my rambunctious side, which I find a need to explode from once in a while. After all, jumping is what Tiggers do best.  Then, there is Pooh. The subject (I wonder if Ďheroí is appropriate) of the book, the sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, and a few books of poetry (Now We are Six rings a wonderful bell) is complex in his ultimate simplicity. The Bear of Very Little Brain has an indefatigable innocence that I wish we could all share? 

Unfortunately, the last time I checked, we are all quite a distance from the Hundred-Acre Wood.  The written art form has long stood as a doorway to a different dimension, to a different world; Winnie-the-Pooh immersed me to such an extent that I look forward with relish to the next time I can visit Christopher Robin and his friends. This is a great book.  "And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey." And then he got up, and said: "And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it."

Sean Ryan: Sophieís World  by Jostein Gaardner  

This novel held my hand as I traveled through the unknown world of Philosophy. Though the novels size might ward off some, it flows equally from start to finish. Focusing on one principal character makes the novel simple and gives enough space for Aristotle and Socrates a chance to shine. This novel was far from its normal counterparts, it was more like a philosophy book with a fictitious character to make it easier to grasp and gives nice breaks throughout the lesson. There was the "teacher" that would leave Sophie messages and clues on when she will hear from him next. Itís great because the reader might not have a great idea on the subject but if it is kept simple and builds on recurring information, it will be easy and interesting to learn. That is what Gaardner does. The fictitious plot was a little weak but there is a strong influence on the subject of philosophy. It opened my eyes and summed up the major points and discussions in the world of philosophy. 







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