Books·My Life in Books

7 books that shaped the life and work of Stephanie Morgenstern

The co-creator of Flashpoint, star of The Sweet Hereafter and director of the short film Remembrance reveals her favourite books.
Filmmaker Stephanie Morgenstern on set with CBC TV's World War II spy drama X Company in Dieppe, France. (Jan Thijs)

Stephanie Morgenstern co-created the TV series Flashpoint and X Company, makes short films like Remembrance — for which she received a Genie nomiantion —, voiced the iconic cartoon character Sailor Venus in the English dub Sailor Moon and starred in films like The Sweet Hereafter. Her latest project is participating as a panelist in CBC Arts' new show The Filmmakers, where people involved in some of Canadas' most signficant movies discuss their cultural importance and relevance today. The first episode highlighted The Sweet Hereafter, which you can watch here.

In her own words, Morgenstern shared seven books that are meaningful to her.

More Goon Show Scripts by Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan was the co-creator, main writer and a principal cast member of BBC Radio's comedy program The Goon Show.

"Before there was Monty Python, there were the Goons. Under-appreciated outside of England, The Goon Show was a subversive, cheeky and utterly daft BBC Radio comedy show that ran through the 1950s. I was sucked into the show's scripts long before I heard the actual recordings, which are themselves a whole other level of surreal brilliance (voiced almost entirely by Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Seacombe). I blame this well-worn volume for my snapping open the metal case of my mother's green vintage Hermes Rocket typewriter at the age of about 10 and trying to type dialogue myself. Although my brother, sister and I occasionally recorded satirical home-brew radio comedy in the basement, nothing I ever typed would (or will ever) come near the Goons' giddy and irreverent level of inspiration."

Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour by Desmond Morris 

Desmond Morris is an English zoologist, surrealist painter and an author of books on human sociobiology. He is best known for his 1967 book The Naked Ape. (Triad/Panther Books)

"My father was an omnivorous and encyclopedic reader. Over the years his book collection spilled beyond his den, down halls, into bedrooms and eventually colonized the basement. One book I found fascinating when I was a teen was Manwatching. It was a vibrantly illustrated, very accessible volume of pop anthropology that I took to be the key to the grasping human truth just by observing gestures, glances and body language. As an insecure youth, I needed every advantage I could get when it came to navigating social groups, so I used this book to try to see past the surface of my surrounding primates' everyday behaviour by reading all kinds of covert meaning into which direction they crossed their arms. Also, Manwatching had some chapters on human attraction and courtship rituals that I found rather saucy."

The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory by Alexander Luria 

Alexander Luria was a Russian neuropsychologist best known for his research and psychological case studies. (Harvard University Press)

"When I told my dad I thought I had synesthesia, he pulled out this slender book from his neuroscience section. It was a vivid, compact portrait of an extraordinary Russian man, referred to as 'S', (Solomon Shereshevsky) whose synesthetically-fused senses resulted in a nearly perfect autobiographical memory. Luria's portrait of this sensitive, gifted and cursed fellow left such a strong impression on me that 'S' became the inspiration for the first short film I directed solo, Remembrance, which itself later became the calling card for X Company. Luria's case studies balanced the rigour of scientific observation with empathy for his subject, pioneering the tradition later popularized by Oliver Sacks. Sacks' Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat also belong on this books-of-my-life list. The old-school, typewritten, hand-corrected letter Dr. Sacks sent me after seeing Remembrance is still one of my most treasured possessions. But it was his predecessor, Luria, who unwittingly set me off on this particular path about 23 years ago and I'm still grateful."

A Woman to Deliver Her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution by James K. Hopkins   

James K. Hopkins is a history professor at Southern Methodist University. (SMU/University of Texas Press)

"In the months before beginning my master's degree at York University in Social and Political Thought, afraid of being conspicuously underqualified with my modest background in English studies, I tried to speed-read through as many of the Great Works of the field as possible. Deep in The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson there was a brief reference to this remarkable woman, Joanna Southcott, who in the late 1700s went from being an uneducated, self-deprecating Devonshire housemaid to a full-on professional prophetess and the reluctant leader of a mass movement expecting the Second Coming. This led me to Hopkins' book and from there on a screenplay-research-quest/secular pilgrimage to England to retrace her steps, and later to New Zealand to meet one of the few remaining believers. A Woman to Deliver Her People is a rich, sprawling historical biography that offers compassion, insight and context for Southcott's touching faith that, despite feeling desperately underqualified herself for the demands of her destiny, 'the Lord hath chosen the weak, foolish things of this world to confound the great and mighty…' This is a theme I can't help feeling drawn to."

My Darling Dead Ones by Erika de Vasconcelos

Erika de Vasconcelos is a Portuguese-Canadian author. (The McDermid Agency/Vintage Canada)

"Full disclosure: the author happens to be a high school friend of mine. But if I have to lock down a list of the books that shaped my life, it would be a lie to say this wasn't one of them when it came out in 1997. It follows the story, from an unapologetically female perspective, of multiple generations of a Portuguese family, weaving together themes of love, infidelity, legacy and identity. I loved it for the storytelling itself: sensual and audacious, lyrical but still grounded in truths that were clearly raw and close to home. But beyond the craft level, more personally, it dazzled me to witness my comrade, Erika, tackling adversity, setting a goal, throwing herself into research, working with fierce and relentless discipline and bursting out the other side with something no one else in the world could have made. To me it was a breakthrough, a revelation, that a peer made this seem possible." 

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman

Dave Grossman is a retired lieutenant colonel and an American author who studies the psychology of killing. (Little, Brown and Company)

"It's one of the most profoundly unnatural acts, to take the life of a creature of your own species. Other animals may posture, threaten, compete and perform violent rituals of domination, but only humans have developed the systematic and industrial-scale means of killing our own kind.  As Lt. Col. Grossman explains, for this to happen, the capacity for human empathy and solidarity, hard-wired into us by nature, has to be strategically and surgically trained back out at a devastating cost. What's striking about this book is the insight into that experience, from a point of view that's not academic and arm's-length, but military and hands-on.  Early in the run of Flashpoint, Grossman was doing a speaking tour not far from Toronto — so [co-creator] Mark Ellis and I took a road trip to see him in person. It was a memorable day and it taught us many valuable things (like the slightly paranoid concept of 'combat-parking'). The most powerful impression it left was the vivid portrait of post-traumatic stress, told from the inside.  Grossman's book is chilling and unforgettable and after reading it, it's impossible to think about the military or police the same way." 

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter 

In 2016, Hamilton received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, winning 11, including Best Musical. It also won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama. (Getty Images/Grand Central Publishing)

"My daughter introduced me to the Hamilton phenomenon a couple of years ago, and though I don't want to be a trend-follower, I find this whole story and meta-story irresistible and radically life-affirming: the unlikely rise of Alexander Hamilton from his inauspicious beginnings, the unexpected explosion of a young rap-inspired creator on the Broadway scene. I haven't seen the show yet, so this is all about the book (and, of course, the soundtrack). This gorgeously designed book takes us on Lin-Manuel Miranda's behind-the-scenes journey with humour, modesty and contagious optimism. It's a reminder that even a creation as brilliant as this musical emerged out of trial and error, frustrations, false starts and dead ends — just like the creative process of the rest of us mortals.  And it's hard not to love the subtle subversiveness of the way this 'all-American' tale is told (and performed) almost entirely in the voices of outsiders, immigrants and talent from outside the main streams of (white) power."

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