My Life in Books

CBC Massey Lecturer Jennifer Welsh names 9 books that changed her life

CBC's 2016 Massey Lecturer Jennifer Welsh explores the fiction and nonfiction that have shaped her life.
Portrait of Jennifer Welsh. (Photograph by Martina Melchionno) (Martina Melchionno)

Jennifer Welsh, CBC's 2016 Massey Lecture fellow, is an eminent scholar on war history and international relations. Her academic interests are reflected in the books she prizes most: a mix of fiction and nonfiction, exploring themes of war, history and trauma.

Welsh's Massey Lecture series The Return of History, which is also a book, has been airing on CBC Radio One's Ideas this week. The penultimate episode, The Return of the Cold War, airs at 9 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2016. You can stream the lectures for free on the Ideas website until Nov. 11, 2016. After this date they will be available for purchase on iTunes only.

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

"For many young girls (and boys) of my generation, The Diary of Anne Frank was a window onto the Second World War — a war which our parents experienced and spoke with us about. Anne's diary was for me not only a tragic illustration of modern-day evil, but also a personal story of the 'regular' anguish of adolescence. I visited Amsterdam a few years ago, and when I visited the Frank house I was reminded of how much this book affected me and shaped my own life-long interest in war and its impact on civilians."

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

"Many fans of Margaret Atwood have overlooked Cat's Eye, but for me it is one of her most authentic and powerful. The artist Elaine returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work and is confronted with memories of her troubled childhood. Atwood captures precisely just how cruel young girls can be to one another, but also the challenging process of defining one's femininity."

Possession by A.S. Byatt

"Throughout the final months of writing my doctorate, I kept this book on my bedside table, waiting for the day when I would have the time to read for sheer pleasure. The summer after submitting the thesis I devoured Possession by A.S. Byatt, a masterful work of historical fiction that tells two stories simultaneously: the previously unknown love affair between two Victorian-era poets, and the fractious relationship between two contemporary academics, Roland and Maud, who compete to unearth and interpret the poets' correspondence. The book is both romance and detective story, and showcases not only Byatt's own substantial talent for poetry but also her deep understanding of the pathologies of modern academia!"

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

"For me, each and every Michael Ondaatje book is a unique masterpiece, making it hard to identify only one to highlight here. But it is the sheer range of fascinating characters, and the backdrop of the Second World War as it played out in both Italy and North Africa, that mark out The English Patient. I once visited the convent/villa in Fiesole upon which Ondaatje loosely based his novel, and was taken back to the bedside of the burned 'English' patient, as he gradually reveals his story to the Canadian nurse Hana - for me one of the great characters of contemporary fiction. The book also stands as a powerful critique of the 'West,' conveyed through Katharine Clifton's reading of Herodotus's The Histories in the desert and the Indian sapper Kip's disenchantment with the Allies after the bombing of Hiroshima."

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

"If I were to name the book whose language has had the strongest effect on me, this would be it. Every sentence of Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces is poetry, yet the phrases combine to tell a powerful story of grief, loss and memory. The first part of the book pivots around the relationship between Jakob, a young Jewish boy who escapes capture by the Nazis and is discovered by Athos, a Greek archaeologist, in a forest. The two of them journey first to Greece and then to Toronto, where Jakob becomes a poet. It is thus a story that teaches its readers about the importance of language, and how it can help those who experience deep pain to find meaning in their lives."

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

"I am a huge fan of spy novels, especially those that evoke the intrigue and ideological fanaticism of the Cold War. And there is no better tale than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, which tracks the investigation undertaken by the ageing spymaster George Smiley — an iconic character of fiction — who is coaxed out of retirement in order to 'smoke out' a Soviet mole in the British Intelligence Service. Le Carré manages to create suspense without sensationalism and introduces an elaborate spy jargon of terms like 'coat trailer,' 'honey trap' and 'wrangler.' Pure escapism."

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"In recent years I have had the privilege to work alongside many professionals in the humanitarian sector, some of whom 'cut their teeth' during the Biafran War from 1967-1970. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves a story of lives torn apart by Biafra's failed attempt to secede from Nigeria in Half of a Yellow Sun, particularly the lives of twin daughters of a Nigerian businessman, Olanna and Kainene. It is Kainene's trajectory that most intrigued me, as she transforms from a businesswomen and war profiteer into the director of a refugee camp, as the war's devastating effect on civilians unfolds. I remember reading this epic story during the months after my daughter was born, propped up with pillows while I fed her. It may have been the hormones, or the devastatingly sad plot line, but there were more than a few tears shed."

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

"By now it should be clear that many of the books that have had the greatest impact on my life are those that take place in the midst of, or in relation to, war and armed conflict. I have long been drawn to literature about World War One - the so-called Great War - and for years Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, was one of my favourite novels. But Joseph Boyden's mesmerizing Three Day Road about the brothers Xavier and Elijah, two Cree men from northern Ontario who enlist in the war and become snipers, is the most vivid rendering of life on the European battlefields that I have come across. Boyden's novel was partially inspired by the real-life Indigenous World War One hero Francis Pegahmagabow, but his account of the war's afterlife for its combatants, in the form of Xavier's voyage down the river with Niska, the medicine-woman, broadens the context to one that also addresses the pressures of assimilation for Indigenous Canadians."

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt

"Everything I know about postwar European history I learned from the eminent modern historian, Tony Judt. Judt was also a shrewd and unforgiving commentator on the decay of contemporary liberal democracy, and in his final years, when he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and slowly losing all mobility and speech, he wrote his most stinging critique of European and American politics. But it is The Memory Chalet that I treasure most — a very different Judt book that is the product of his increasing restlessness as he battles with a brain on overdrive but a body that has shut down. Judt conjures up the Swiss chalet where he stayed with his parents as a child, and rebuilds in each room a story from different phases of his life: his 1950s childhood in Putney and love of London buses, his days on a kibbutz, his musings on 1960s radicalism, and his journey from one university to another — until he finally came to call New York home. A journalist from The Guardian once referred to Judt as 'a wellspring of enlightenment you need to spend time with.' The Memory Chalet allows us to do just that, as his life is slipping away. I miss him."

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