Queen’s Reads

In a battle of brains, brawn and books, five Queen’s readers defend the book they think everyone should read

The Travelers, War and Peace, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Book of Negroes and Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems are five books that come strongly recommended by key Queen’s individuals.
The Travelers, War and Peace, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Book of Negroes and Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems are five books that come strongly recommended by key Queen’s individuals.
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War and Peace
By Leo Tolstoy

Widely considered one of the greatest works of fiction written in the 19th century, Tolstoy’s vast narrative of Russia during the Napoleonic period is worth the time and effort. Taken as a novel, it is perhaps not Tolstoy’s finest work (Anna Karenina probably earns that laurel). It is not especially difficult to read—compared, say, to Proust or Joyce—but it is long and its structure can be off-putting. Yet it is one of the few books of that length that I have read twice in two differing translations, once in my teens and a second time just last year. I have found different things in it each time.

The book turns on polarities, pairs and contrasts. The most obvious is the one contained in the title, and Tolstoy’s narrative, covering the years from 1805 to 1812, captures the social and romantic life of the Tsarist aristocracy at two peacetime junctures, preceding the disastrous defeat at Austerlitz and again between that campaign and the return to conflict. Nor is “war” neglected, with vivid descriptions of Borodino (a draw militarily but followed by Napoleon’s ill-fated and ultimately fatal sortie into Moscow), though the strategic and tactical details did not much interest Tolstoy. His attention to the experience and pains of ordinary Russian peasants is a striking feature.

Another pair consists of the two major families, the Bolkonskys and the Bezuhovs. The former belong to the old boyar network of military aristocracy, though the scion of the clan, Prince Andrei, is a gloomy melancholic inclined to serve but not enjoy it, in contrast to some of his younger associates. The latter is represented by their well-meaning bastard heir, Pierre, the wealthy but only recently ennobled chief protagonist. Other contrasts include that between Napoleon and his Russian counterpart, General Kutuzov; that between France and Russia and the lives of the Russian nobility compared with those of the rest of the population.

Tolstoy uses the second half of the lengthy epilogue to an already enormous book for an extended disquisition on history and, throughout the book, he repeatedly pauses his narrative to express his conception of the past and how it may be captured for posterity. Tolstoy rejected the “great man” theory of history articulated by his near-contemporary Thomas Carlyle; his Napoleon is no Hegelian “world-historical individual,” but rather the hostage of thousands of contingencies.

Tolstoy keeps all his balls in the air for more than a thousand pages. War and Peace is 150 years old, but apart from its portrait of a lost society, its humanism remains fresh and its characters some of the most vivid in all of fiction.

—Daniel Woolf,
principal-designate

The Traveler
By John Twelve Hawks

John Twelve Hawks’ The Traveler, while not necessarily “must read” material, is a recent novel that left me pondering some key issues facing modern society. Set in the near future, The Traveler chronicles the adventures of two brothers, Gabriel and Michael Corrigan, who live in a world where a dwindling number of mysterious prophets known as Travelers are protected by an equally mysterious line of warriors called Harlequins. The world at large is run by a powerful and ruthless group of men known as the Tabula. Maya, the daughter of a legendary Harlequin, is charged with the task of protecting the Corrigan brothers from the Tabula—a role she has been raised to fulfill but is reluctant to undertake.

What I liked most about this book was its melding of internal conflict and edge-of-your-seat action with the real-world issue of surveillance and privacy. Working as a data librarian in Stauffer Library, I am very aware of the privacy issues surrounding personal information. Academics have latched onto this issue in their work. At Queen’s, for instance, we have The Surveillance Project, a cross-national study of privacy issues. Recently published academic works evoke the same privacy theme, with titles such as “Visions of Privacy,” “The Labyrinth of Technology” and “No Place to Hide.”

The Traveler taps into this growing concern over privacy, introducing compelling characters who struggle in a world where surveillance technology has become undetectable but omnipresent. The Tabula have extended the concept of a panopticon—a prison of circular design with cells on the periphery, all visible from a central guard station. In The Traveler, the Tabula seek to build a sort of virtual panopticon, where the powerful few secretly monitor, and hence control, all citizens in real time. Comparisons between The Traveler and such mind control series as the Matrix trilogy are perhaps inevitable. In The Traveler, Maya takes on the reluctant hero role played by Neo in The Matrix. In my view, however, The Traveler breaks enough new ground to easily shrug off such similarities.

The Traveler, with its eclectic mix of characters, a healthy dose of action and just-shy-of-reality surveillance technology, delivers on all counts.

—Jeff Moon, head, Maps and Data & Government Information Centre Stauffer Library

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
By Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance begins with a warning: “…it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.” Instead, as the subtitle indicates, it is an “inquiry into values” by one man exploring life and how he lives it. As the author states, “I intended to write down my personal thoughts and it turns out everybody felt the same way.” Zen and the Art has become a modern classic and a best-seller in the last 30 years due to its ability to influence millions of people by letting them consider how they live their lives.

Part non-fiction, part philosophy, but written as a novel, this book is in a genre of its own. The narrator uses a motorcycle trip across the United States with his young son as a framework for philosophical deliberations on life. Pirsig’s writing style enables an already well-written story to contain questions and ideas that are usually left to academic philosophy texts. This mixture makes Zen and the Art easy to read but not necessarily easy to understand.

The book explores the influence of art, religion, education and technology and questions how these things fit into our individual lives. Pirsig maintains that the world has been dominated by classical reason since the time of ancient philosophers and that we have now outgrown these ideas and need a new way to explain existence and our conception of it. The arguments are convincing and well thought out and you continuously find yourself realizing the book is putting into words things you know to be true but just couldn’t articulate.

One quote that sums up my experience with the book refers to “the high country of the mind,” an area Pirsig says you enter when examining metaphysical questions. “It takes a lot of effort when you arrive, but unless you can make the journey you are confined to one valley of thought all your life.”

Trying to put into words the instructive lessons this book provides cheapens the physical and philosophical journey of Zen and the Art. The greatest enjoyment and rewards come from exploring the story and its ideas yourself—page-by-page.

—Alistair Clark,
Queen’s men’s rugby captain

Selected Poems 1956-1968
By Leonard Cohen

I was 16 when Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems—1956-1968 was published by McClelland and Stewart. I don’t remember buying the book or who directed me to it. It might well have been the influence of my high school English teacher, Elisabeth Stimpson, a woman I adored and feared in equal measure. She introduced me to my first living poet, Dennis Lee, when she brought him to our Grade 13 classroom to read from his new collection of poems Civil Elegies. She encouraged us to read widely, whatever took our attention. There were no rules.

I carried the Cohen collection with me everywhere. It lay on the bed beside me while I slept. Reading lines like “Snow is falling./There is a nude in my room./ She surveys the wine-coloured carpet./ She is eighteen./ She has straight hair./ She speaks no Montreal language” caught my attention right away. I started writing things myself, lines like “It is grey rain. / Toronto is cold to me.” Little did I realize it was the start of something that would take over my life.

Forty years on, reading some of the poems that appeared in that early collection, poems such as “You Have the Lovers,” “Gift,” “For Anne,” “As the Mist Leaves No Scar,” “Song” or “Owning Everything,” can still both uplift me and bring me to tears. Consider this stanza, from the poem “A Kite is a Victim”:

A kite is a contract of glory

that must be made with the sun,

so you make friends with the field

the river, and the wind,

then you pray the whole cold night before,

under the travelling cordless moon,

to make you worthy and lyric and pure.

At first the language of his poetry appeared simple, as if I were hearing someone talking, standing close beside me. That’s the way I’ve always remembered these poems, as if they were spoken—intimately—just to me. I became a poet so that I could continue the conversation with Leonard Cohen. When I did meet him later that same year, standing in line to purchase a substitute copy of the book I had loved so much that I had worn it out, we stood eye to eye and he listened to what I had to say with gentleness and respect, just the way the poems speak. I am forever grateful for this book, for this life, for this poetry.

—Carolyn Smart,
creative writing instructor

The Book of Negroes
By Lawrence Hill

I have chosen to review Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes because of the novel’s ability to act simultaneously as a moving story of what it means to be human and as a powerful form of political expression. Hill tells his story in the first person, through the voice of Aminata Diallo.

Stolen from Africa, Aminata recounts her journey across the Atlantic and through the indigo plantation. We learn of her escape, survival and eventual registration in the Book of Negroes that allows her to immigrate to a Nova Scotia that supposedly grants freedom to blacks. The Book of Negroes is filled with tales of both triumph and tribulation, albeit within the framework of an overarching trauma of slavery and racism. Although the story belongs to Aminata, the reader is made to understand the horrors of the slave trade at large in a personalized way that is not frequently told in our history classes.

Storytelling is part of humanity because stories lead to history. Without storytelling, much of human history would be forgotten or overlooked. Although the dry facts of the slave trade are taught in classes, we are rarely given the opportunity to engage with the history of slavery in a meaningful and personalized way. Since the West is not engaging with these types of stories very often, it forgets its colonizing past, and subsequently its positionality in relation to its marginalized cohabitants. Stories like that of Aminata Diallo, in The Book of Negroes, serve to remind the Western reader that the history of slavery is a shared history and has led to the current relationship of oppressed and oppressor as we know it.

Often the importance of storytelling in relation to traumatic histories is reiterated in the same breath as “never forget.” In other words, we need to tell stories to ensure that these traumatic histories do not repeat themselves. However, rarely is the act of storytelling understood for its humanizing facility. In The Book of Negroes, there seems to be a palpable attempt on the part of Lawrence Hill to humanize his characters throughout the story. He juxtaposes characters singing, learning and loving, with the harsh realities of enslavement and racism.

Hill also critiques Western “humanity,” with examples such as a slave ship doctor who owns a talking parrot. He perfectly exemplifies absurdist Western priorities by contrasting the image of starving slaves in one room of the ship, with a talking parrot being fed three times a day in the next room over. These stories not only serve to humanize those historically regarded as “subhuman,” but simultaneously serve to illustrate the barbarism of the more commonly recognized white “humanity,” or slave traders. Aminata’s story serves this function in a way that historical and sociological discourse cannot, and I believe that Hill’s ability to politicize this poignant story makes it an invaluable contribution to modern literature.

—Talia Radcliffe, AMS president

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