Books·My Life in Books

7 books that inspire Charlotte Gray

The juror for the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize shares 7 books that shaped their life and work.
Charlotte Gray is the author of The Promise of Canada: 150 Years — People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country. (Valberg Imaging)

Charlotte Gray has written nearly a dozen books on Canadian history. She's covered everything from the Massey Murder to the Klondike Gold Rush. Her most recent book, The Promise of Canada, weaves together nine portraits of Canadians who have influenced the course of the country.

Gray shares seven books that have inspired her with CBC Books. Gray is a juror for the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize. 

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin has written biographies on Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft. (Angus Muir/Vintage)

"Claire Tomalin, one of Britain's finest literary biographers, recreates the life of Nelly Ternan in The Invisible Woman. Ternan was an actor and the mistress of Charles Dickens for the final 13 years of his life, whose existence was largely erased from the record. It is also a terrific portrait of Victorian England and the vulnerability of women who went on the stage. Tomalin had only snippets of information and documentary fragments to work with (a familiar predicament for most Canadian biographers!) but she weaves them into a compelling nonfiction narrative. Tomalin herself has said, 'The rewriting of history is a central theme in this whole story... the problem arises in people's shifting view of morality.'"

The Private Capital by Sandra Gwyn

Sandra Gwyn was awarded the Governor General's Award for English-language non-fiction for The Private Capital. (McClelland & Stewart Ltd)

"The Private Capital by Sandra Gwyn is a remarkable book about social and private life in Canada's capital from the time of Confederation to the outbreak of the First World War. It is popular history at its best; from diaries, scrapbooks and letters, Gwyn introduces us to not just political leaders and their wives and children, but also to poets, reporters and public servants. Gwyn convinced me that Canadian ignorance of our past represented a massive waste of extraordinary stories, as well as a reckless indifference to this country's distinctiveness. Gwyn was a good friend who died much too young; she was my mentor and remains my model."

The Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is a Man Booker Prize nominated author from India. (Sumit Dayal/Penguin Canada)

"During my British education, I absorbed the Imperial version of the 19th century opium trade — the British Empire thrived on commerce; opium was simply a commodity like tea or cotton; only depraved peoples became addicted. The Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) by Amitav Ghosh made me reassess this world; I was both enthralled and horrified. Yet this is no finger-wagging polemic. Instead, trade routes are the conduits of history and personal quests, and Ghosh sketches the mingling of peoples across the Indian Ocean within a brilliant cast of characters. Combining cross-cultural insights with storytelling magic, Ghosh is the best kind of historical novelist. Even as I acknowledged the brutality of the opium trade and the self-serving hypocrisy of the British authorities, I was gripped by the richness of his plot and range of perspectives."

Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. (Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade/Penguin Classics)

"Middlemarch by George Eliot is a masterpiece of Victorian literature, with its large cast and close observation of human nature. I read it for the first time in my 20s, and I regularly re-read it. As soon as I met Dorothea, the main character, I was drawn into her world and her dilemmas. The novel's theme — the place of women in a changing but still patriarchal society — triggered my own interest in women's lives, past and present. I began my writing career with biographies of 19th century women, so I could explore how real-life Dorotheas quietly cast off convention and achieved some measure of fulfilment. Then I widened my net to include both men and women. Eliot's example suggested to me that a writer should not confine herself to only one side of the story."

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden is the author of Three Day Road. (Penguin Canada)

"I recall the hairs on the back of my neck stirring as I began reading Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. I realized that I was being taken inside a mindset and community to which I had previously had no access. The story of two Cree boys from northern Ontario who became snipers in the First World War is a wonderful mash-up of two genres — searing war novel and spiritual guidebook."

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold's Ghost. (Mariner Books)

"In the late 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium owned a vast area of the Congo River basin in central Africa, and he became immeasurably wealthy by the brutal exploitation of its natural resources (especially rubber) for his personal profit. Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness was inspired by the novelist's experiences in the Congo. In King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild argues that there were several real-life models for the sadist Kurtz. A handful of journalists, shipping clerks and missionaries launched one of the first real international human rights campaigns against the appalling cruelty of Leopold's reign of terror — but not before the institutions and cultures of the region's peoples had been destroyed. This is highly readable history that also explores how yesterday's horrific events and decisions can cast a long, dark shadow over today. The past is never over."

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown

Chester Brown is a cartoonist and the creative force behind Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. (Sook-Yin Lee/Drawn & Quarterly)

"Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown is a brilliant book. Wonderful drawings, clear storytelling and a thoughtful analysis of the Métis leader. Most important, with this book, Brown brought Canadian history alive for a whole new audience."


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