A Propos D Henry Critique Essay

… it was not that he went too far, it was on the contrary that he stopped too short. He hovered for ever at the public door, in the outer court, the splendour of which very properly beguiled him, and in which he seems still to stand as upright as a sentinel and as shapely as a statue.1

1Evoking his year in Paris in the Notebooks, James expresses his satisfaction at having known Flaubert, “a powerful, serious, melancholy, manly, deeply corrupted, yet not corrupting, nature.”2 He often associates him in his mind with Turgenev, the first man of letters he had met in Paris and the one who had introduced him to Flaubert and his circle.3 He compares them in Partial Portraits and presents them as large, massive men, sincere, pessimistic and with a deep regard for each other, a regard which on Turgenev’s part was not without compassion. From the first James shared this compassion, and the following extract, though somewhat long, is worth quoting because it is a kind of summary of what James thought of Flaubert as a man and as a writer:

He had failed, on the whole, more than he had succeeded, and the great machinery of erudition,—the great polishing process,—which he brought to bear upon his productions, was not accompanied with proportionate results. He had talent without having cleverness, and imagination without having fancy. His effort was heroic, but except in the case of Madame Bovary, a masterpiece, he imparted something to his works (it was as if he had covered them with metallic plates) which made them sink rather than sail. He had a passion for perfection of form and for a certain splendid suggestiveness of style. He wished to produce perfect phrases, perfectly interrelated, and as closely woven together as a suit of chain-mail. He looked at life altogether as an artist, and took his work with a seriousness that never belied itself. To write an admirable page—and his idea of what constituted an admirable page was transcendent—seemed to him something to live for. He tried it again and again, and he came very near it; more than once he touched it, for Madame Bovary surely will live. But there was something ungenerous in his genius. He was cold, and he would have given everything he had to be able to glow… there were some parts of his mind that did not “give,” that did not render a sound. He had had too much of some sorts of experience and not enough of others. And yet this failure of an organ, as I may call it, inspired those who knew him with a kindness. If Flaubert was powerful and limited, there is something human, after all, and even rather august in a strong man who has not been able completely to express himself.4

2The note of compassion was never quite absent from James’s criticism of Flaubert. He liked him, not as he liked Daudet or George Sand, but with the kind of sympathy we cannot help feeling for a strong man full of possibilities but suffering from a mysterious illness which paralyzes half his movements. Whenever he was on the point of passing a severe judgment on Flaubert, James seemed to retract a little, to make it milder, as though he remembered to be indulgent to a man who had already been so ill-treated by nature. The disease appeared to James as one of the mind, psychological rather than physical. He found something immensely sad in this man who took everything so hard, who never knew exactly how to come to terms with life for the simple reason that he hated life as well as humanity as a whole and the bourgeois in particular; a man whose main occupation consisted in trying to write beautiful pages and who decided to lead a flat, uneventful and secluded life at Croisset in order to reach an aim that always eluded him. From the start, James admired Madame Bovary. He never forgot his first impressions when, as a child, he read its first instalments in the Revue des Deux Mondes. In later years he still admired it because it contains emotion, because at the time he wrote it Flaubert’s sensibility had not yet begun to atrophy. It did atrophy later on, and it was Flaubert’s mistake to go on writing after completing his masterpiece. From the start also James appreciated Flaubert’s single-minded devotion to his art and his extreme seriousness, although as an Anglo-Saxon he would probably have liked to see it occasionally lightened by a smile. On the whole—with the exception of Madame Bovary—James objected to Flaubert’s novels. But he was pleased they had been written because a lesson could be derived from them:

Lying there before us so unmistakably still-born, they are a capital refutation of the very dogma in defence of which they appeared. The fatal charmlessness of each and all of them is an eloquent plea for the ideal.5

3James had been acquainted with Flaubert long before he actually met him in Paris and he had read Madame Bovary as soon as it began to appear. In 1874 he wrote an unsigned review of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine for the Nation. The young critic does not hesitate to call the book a “ponderous failure.” He is struck, disappointed, and shocked by the treatment of such a theme as the hallucinations of the saint: the visions, instead of being suggested with the vagueness usually associated with such phenomena are described in a realistic way, with the minute exactness of a series of photographs. Flaubert merely aimed at being pictorial and even his picturesque is cold-blooded and artificial; infinite labour and research can be felt behind the finished work. What still more surprises James is Flaubert’s complete indifference to the spiritual problem, his reducing to almost nothing the saint’s reaction upon his own hallucinations. James does not understand why the novelist chose such a subject if its appeal to him was only pictorial. It is obvious that the American writer, had he ever embarked on the same subject, would have treated it in a quite different way, most probably from the saint’s point of view. As it is, the performance gratifies the senses but leaves the mind unsatisfied. There was an idea, an interesting human problem but Flaubert passed by without seeming to notice it. James concludes his review with a general remark on the condition of the French literary intellect: “M. Flaubert and his contemporaries,” he says, “have pushed so far the education of the senses and the cultivation of the grotesque in literature and the arts that it has left them morally stranded and helpless.”6

4Flaubert too often forgot that “even when we are so queerly constituted as to be ninety-nine parts literary we are still a hundredth part something else.”7 Comparing him with Charles de Bernard in 1876 James shows that, though the latter hardly had more moral sense, he was at least better company because he belonged to an older generation which had urbanity and good taste. Flaubert’s fault was to let his sense of technique, his love of form, grow so thick that it completely choked his sensitiveness. His style, rich as it is, renders only the visible, the world of the senses. His beauty is merely verbal, his conception merely plastic. He does not concern himself with the life of the soul; therefore he is cold, and his work never totally beguiles. His novels represent lifeless beauty, beauty associated with coldness, with the immobility which made Malraux speak of the “beaux romans paralysés de Flaubert.”8 Flaubert’s theory is to begin on the outside, to look at life as a spectacle. Unfortunately, he lacked facility and he was so conscientious a writer that he was doomed to remain for ever in the realm of the visible. His emotional development did not keep pace with his technical development. He encountered so many obstacles on his way that he never even reached the door of the soul; he began on the outside but also ended there:

What our eyes show us is all that we are sure of; so with this we will, at any rate, begin. As this is infinitely curious and entertaining, if we know how to look at it, and as such looking consumes a great deal of time and space, it is very possible that with this also we may end.9

5Poor Flaubert was, as James noticed in his article on Daudet in 1883, “destitute of this sense of the beautiful, destitute of facility and grace,”10 two qualities James could never praise too much in an artist. He liked Daudet for possessing them; he enjoyed George Sand’s novels for the same reason and, charmed by her in spite of major faults in her work as well as in her life, he repeated again and again that she was a great improvisatrice. In Roderick Hudson he insisted on his hero’s “divine facility” and through Rowland Mallet he exhorted the young sculptor not to play with it, to “respect it, nurse it, adore it, save it up in an old stocking,”11 because it was too important to be speculated on.

6When he reviewed the Correspondance de Gustave Flaubert published by the latter’s niece, Madame Commanville, in 1893— which once more led him to digress on the question of privacy— James was particularly interested in the letters addressed to George Sand because they revealed two contrasting temperaments, the one eagerly in search of experience, the other shrinking from it. They showed how limited Flaubert’s field of experience was. For him mankind was made up of three or four persons who shared his interest in literature: the rest of the world simply did not exist. The letters “exhibit an extraordinary singleness of aim, show us the artist not only disinterested but absolutely dishumanized.”12 The absence of the human element also accounted for the coldness of Flaubert’s works, in which, James writes, we “breathe the air of pure aesthetics” and which are “as hard as stone… wonderful bristling metals and polished agates.”13 That Flaubert should have reached a kind of perfection, in spite of his lack of facility and his obstinate refusal to encounter experience and life, is sufficient to make him one of the embarrassing “cases” who confound both the novelist and the moralist. Unable as he is to separate a work of art from the mind that produced it, James wonders whether the limitations of Flaubert’s works are not to be related to a defect of his mind, whether, in the last analysis, the limitations in the novelist are not simply a lack of intelligence about life. Though Flaubert and James cared for their art more than for anything else, their experience of life was quite different: while the former spent his evenings at Croisset, away from the world and society, the latter, whether in Rome, Paris or London, spent his dining out in the best society and listening to a thousand anecdotes which were to become the themes of his stories. Flaubert did not care for an anecdote or for an idea. All that counted was the way to do it. He did it and he did it, in fact, to perfection, but it was at the cost of life. All this is of the first importance for younger novelists: the perfection as well as the blank, the beautiful achievement as well as the failure, for it teaches them both the best and the worst, what can be achieved and what must be avoided. So Flaubert’s effort will not be wasted, and all those who practise the art of the novel will always derive benefit from a serious study of his work.

7Flaubert was indeed the “novelist’s novelist”14 as James calls him in the 1902 essay that served as a preface to Madame Bovary. By the time James wrote this article (reprinted in Notes on Novelists) Madame Bovary was generally recognized as a classic. How a book becomes a classic is an adventure that greatly interests James. “The private history of any sincere work, however modest its pretensions,” he was to write in the preface to Roderick Hudson, “looms with its own completeness in the rich, ambiguous aesthetic air, and seems at once to borrow a dignity and to mark, so to say, a station.”15 First unnoticed and, when noticed, persecuted, contested, Madame Bovary gradually acquired its significance by a slow and small process as one perceptive reader after another discovered its value and interest. Young as he was at the time when he first became acquainted with Madame Bovary in the Revue des Deux Mondes, James was already one of these perceptive private readers, and he felt that the novel gave promise of a glorious future. He mentioned it in the review of the Temptation, in which he said that, as a picture of the misery that results from vice, Madame Bovary should be used for educational purposes. He devoted the greatest part of his article on Flaubert in French Poets and Novetists to Madame Bovary and called it the most characteristic work among the literary production in France. The book, he said, could never have been written in English:

It is not in the temper of English vision to see things as M. Flaubert sees them, and it is not in the genius of the English language to present them as he presents them. With all respect to “Madame Bovary,” “Madame Bovary” is fortunately an inimitable work.16

8Though the novel had probably been written for sensation’s rather than for meditation’s sake, and was thus didactic by mere accident, it did provoke meditation on the consequences of loose living and a kind of morality could be drawn from it. Moreover, since there were a great many potential Madame Bovarys it could serve as a warning. In his review of Flaubert’s correspondence James no longer mentioned the immorality of Madame Bovary and presented the novel as the best among Flaubert’s production because it was the only one that contained a little emotion. This view marks a transition to his more mature criticism as it is expressed in the 1902 article.

9In this article—the longest and the best about Flaubert—James examines the novel much more closely than before. His criticism has gained in maturity and he sees Flaubert’s works in a new light. Emma Bovary is a victim of the imaginative habit; she is an embodiment of helpless romanticism, and Flaubert paints her with extraordinary insight and truth because the problem was also his own, because he himself had to react against romanticism in order to avoid resembling his heroine. This mixture of real (constituting the background) and romantic (occupying the front) also contributes to the richness of the book:

Emma Bovary’s poor adventures are a tragedy for the very reason that in a world unsuspecting, unassisting, unconsoling, she has herself to distil the rich and the rare.17

10Such was also Flaubert’s tragedy, and James, who had always sensed something tragic in Flaubert’s case, now feels that the inward strife in the writer is what gives Madame Bovary the emotion it contains. He also understands better the nature of the strife: Flaubert wanted to be a realist but by temperament he was a romantic attracted to impressive and exotic subjects. When he tried to paint the near, the world he could directly perceive, he had to silence his eloquence, to keep down his tone, he had, in other words, to find a compromise, and this gave him all the more trouble as the only sphere he knew from experience was that of the bourgeois, whom he hated:

In the bourgeois sphere his ideal of expression laboured under protest; in the other, the imagined, the projected, his need for facts, for matter, and his pursuit of them, sat no less heavily…. Singular enough in his life the situation so constituted: the comparatively meagre human consciousness… struggling with the absolutely large artistic; and the large artistic half wreaking itself on the meagre human and half seeking refuge from it, as well as a revenge against it, in something quite different.18

11So there are two parts in his literary production, as distinct from each other as—to use James’s image—the divisions on the back of a scarab. But Flaubert is most pleased when he can be both precise and rare, and since he values the quality of the expression above everything else, the image always takes precedence over the object. More than ever before, James insists on Flaubert’s sense of form, composition, distribution, arrangement. Nothing is left to chance, everything holds perfectly together. The form of Madame Bovary is unsurpassable, it is not only interesting in itself but it is so closely related to the subject that it never strikes us as disconnected from the whole. Everything round Emma is perfectly observed:

That is the triumph of the book as the triumph stands, that Emma interests us by the nature of her consciousness and the play of her mind, thanks to the reality and beauty with which those sources are invested. It is not only that they represent her state; they are so true, so observed and felt, and especially so shown, that they represent the state, actual or potential, of all persons like her, persons romantically determined.19

12Unfortunately Emma, as a character, is too poor for her part.20 True, the novel is a picture of the middling, but, James wonders, does Emma even attain to that: “hers is a narrow middling even for a little imaginative person whose ‘social’ significance is small.”21

13Had she been the sole example in Flaubert’s work of a vessel too small for its contents James would have hesitated before attributing it to a limitation in the writer’s psychological insight. But Frédéric Moreau, chosen by Flaubert to be the register of his mind, is a still more abject human specimen than Emma. James cannot understand why Flaubert—unless he was limited himself—could have chosen such poor reflectors of the life he proposed to depict. The only character in which James sees the seeds of a more interesting personality is Madame Arnoux, the author’s one attempt “to represent beauty otherwise than for the senses, beauty of character and life.”22 There was an opportunity but Flaubert missed it, a blunder which James finds it difficult to forgive because, unlike Flaubert’s other mistakes, this one is moral rather than intellectual. Seen as she is through the eyes of Frédéric Moreau, Madame Arnoux is scarce invested with a character at all. She could have been the link between the reader and the other characters of L’Education Sentimentale, for there is not a single one with whom we can directly communicate. The fact that Flaubert missed such an opportunity certainly reveals a flaw in his sensibility. His hunger for the rich, the far and the rare seems to have limited itself to the concrete world. He had a great and splendid imagination but he never approached the rich and the rare in human character, James’s most affectionate field.

14Apart from this reservation on Flaubert’s “vessels of consciousness” and more particularly on Emma’s scantiness James’s praise is by now unqualified. Flaubert’s works are “so written and so composed… that the more we look at them the more we find in them, under this head, a beauty of intention and of effect; the more they figure in the too often dreary desert of fictional prose a class by themselves and a little living oasis.”23 What now matters about Madame Bovary is no longer whether the heroine is depraved or not but how she touches us thanks to the reality that surrounds her. Some writers, James says, can render their subject best because they feel it most. Flaubert went the other way round: he could feel it best because he had rendered it to perfection. Madame Bovary is a classic because it is ideally done, and when a book is perfect to this point nothing else particularly matters.

15Poor Flaubert had been denied by nature the precious gift of charm, and James finds something tragic in this massive figure chained to his task as Prometheus to his rock and, in his love of perfection and form, wrestling with phrases and syntax, trying again and again to catch the right word and only occasionally coming near it. None of the French realists seems to have better answered to James’s description of “galley-slaves tied to a ball and chain.”24 The only thing at which he aimed in his secluded life was literature, and the man was sacrificed to the artist; his only aim in literature was the real, and the life of the soul was sacrificed to the picture of the external world. By devoting all his work and energy to this one half of himself and to this one half of reality, Flaubert achieved limited perfection. But his works are strangely deprived of sympathetic characters. Even Madame Bovary, which yet contains more emotion than the others because it is deeply rooted in the writer’s split consciousness, has a rigidity, a moral immobility which displeases James. Thrusting his torch in every corner of his picture Flaubert makes everything clear, definite; he exhausts the reality he describes and leaves no blank for the reader’s imagination to fill in. Emma, who is a part of this reality, is condemned from the start and has no moral freedom: a prisoner of her creator still more than of her fate, she is as beautiful as a statue and as rigidly enclosed in her form as a cold marble figure. James deplores the lack of tenderness, of generosity, Flaubert’s pessimistic view of life and his tragic, unmitigated irony. Yet he finds him even more interesting for his failure than for his success:

I find myself feeling for a moment longer in presence of L’Education how much more interesting a writer may be on occasion by the given failure than by the given success. Successes pure and simple disconnect and dismiss him; failures—though I admit they must be a bit qualified—keep him in touch and in relation.25

16The difference between James and Flaubert as artists can be related to their different attitudes to life. In Flaubert’s embittered mind there was only hatred and contempt; in James’s infinite capacity for wonder there was tenderness and respect. The French writer turned to art to forget the ugliness and mediocrity of life; the American wrote works of fiction to save as much of the richness of life as he could. James constantly felt the pressure of life on his limited form and tried to combine the expansion of the one with the rigour of the other; Flaubert only knew the nightmare of toil and deliberately kept life at a distance by his flights in the rare and the strange and by his ostentatious irony. But though they did not follow the same paths James and Flaubert reached the same height because of their seriousness and of the great amount of “doing” in their works. It is art indeed, James wrote, “that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”26

The Scholar, Osman Hamdi Bey (1878)

Our annual McGill Reads holiday reading list celebrates its fifth year in real style, with a thought-provoking selection of great reads as suggested by University students, staff, faculty alumni and administrators. From time-honoured classics to fresh new releases; from sci-fi and self-help, to best-sellers and biographies, our list is big, bold and beautiful. And, as always, just as fascinating as the diverse list itself are the backstories behind each selected title that give us a little glimpse into each of our contributors.

Thanks to everyone who participated and have a great, page-turning holiday!


“I have huge backlog of unread books at home,” writes Amanda Testani, Communications Associate, Office of the Vice-Principal (Research and Innovation), “but for the holidays I will be reading:

Reading on a sunny afternoon, Charles Edward Perugini.

Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd. “I love curling up to a good mystery novel during the holidays/winter months and there’s no one better than the Queen of Mystery, in my opinion.”

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. “I’m excited to read the Hunchback of Notre-Dame because I only know the story from what I’ve seen in movies and I’m looking forward to exploring it through literature (books are always better).”

Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. “It is a unique novel that highlights the importance of protecting bees and offers a warning of what the world would be like if bees were extinct. I like that it is a fictional novel with a strong environmental message.”

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “I have an annual tradition of reading this on Christmas eve. It never gets old.”


Crystal Noronha, a research assistant in the Faculty of Dentistry, plans to read Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin for her book club group.


“I am looking forward to a bit of reading over the holidays and am targeting two books,” writes Anja Geitmann, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Portrait of the French artist Émile Henri Bernard at Florence, Paul Sérusier (1893)

Her first pick is Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. “I have always had an interest for language and words, and my long-suffering grad students know that I might go about inventing new terms for new concepts in the latest manuscript that we are writing,” writes Geitmann. “This book is right up that particular alley of mine.”

Next, she will read Andy Weir’s Artemis. “Although sci-fi is not typically the genre I drift to, I loved Weir’s The Martian – probably because of the great scientific detail (a real SCIENCE fiction),” she says. “I therefore would love to read Artemis, and all I need is someone to put it in my Christmas stocking.”


Even though he is a regular contributor to our reading list – and was actually the person who suggested we compile our first summer reading list – Victor Chisholm needed a personalized email before sending his list this time around.

“I missed the call for submissions, so thanks for the special invitation,” writes everybody’s favourite Undergraduate Research Officer (Faculty of Science). “As I think you know, I find it just about as much fun to stop and think about what I want to read, as it is to read our fellow community members’ reading lists.

Portarait of philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, Ivan Kramskoi (1885)

“Michel Tremblay’s La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte was on my reading list last summer, but the truth is that I spent too much time eating ice cream last summer and not enough time reading, so it remains on the list.”

In 2013, Chisholm read Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, which was that year’s Cundill Prize Winner. “Browsing the list of past Cundill Prize winners gives me many ideas: should I read about Vietnam? The Congo? The history of inequality? Perhaps I will go with internationalism and imperialism, and seek out the 2015 winner, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, by Susan Pedersen.

Recently, Chisholm read Ru, by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman), which he found “achingly beautiful. I do hope to read Vi and Mãn by the same wonderful author-translator pair.

“Clearly, as I plan this holiday,” says Chisholm, “I will have to be careful to leave some time for reading, not just ice cream.”


Lisa Knyszynska, Senior Accounts Administrator, AEC 8, Dept. of Medicine, The Glen, is looking forward to tackling Origin, by Dan Brown and Sapiens, A Brief history of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.


Oriental Woman, Friedrich von Amerling (circa 1838)

Genevieve Snider, Manager of the Materials Engineering Co-op Program and also a piano instructor at McGill’s Conservatory, plans to finish Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, by Arianna Huffington.

Following that, Snider will crack open Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being, by Dr. Christiane Northrup.

Finally, she hopes to read Felix Mendelssohn: Out of the Depths of His Heart Heart, by Dr. Helen Martens.  “As a kid, I sang in the Inter-Mennonite children’s choir founded and conducted by Dr. Martens, who in 1965 became the first music professor at the University of Waterloo,” writes Snider. “I am sure I shall learn some fascinating things about this composer that I can pass along to my piano students.”


On top of two books he is planning to read, Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law, also offers a recommendation.

The Rev. John Atwood and His Family, Henry F. Darby (1845)

“One of the best books I read this year and a strong holiday recommendation is Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time,” says Leckey. “Based on the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s beautifully written – as his work always is – and provokes reflection on the relationship between arts and politics.”

Leckey says he will turn to a pair of books over the holidays. “One is the Dictionnaire critique du sexisme linguistique, a collection edited by Suzanne Zaccour and Michaël Lessard, which I’m halfway through. The contributors fasten onto a word or expression and expose it and the network of related words to rigorous feminist analysis, prompting reflection on things we say unthinkingly,” he says. “The other is English prof and poet Michael Snediker’s latest book of poetry, The New York Editions, inspired by the work of Henry James.”


Bruno Savoie, graduating Law student and Editor of the Annals of Air and Space Law, is looking forward to reading Principles, by Ray Dalio. “Principles are the rules we use to make our decisions and I think that their importance is underestimated,” says Savoie. “I will also be reading Shodo: The Quiet Art of Japanese Zen Calligraphy, Learn the Wisdom of Zen Through Traditional Brush Painting, by Shozo Sato. It is interesting to be able to convey an emotion simply by the way you are writing words.”


“I just watched again the wonderful Hitchcock movie Vertigo and noticed in the end credits that it is based on the novel D’entre les morts, by French authors Boileau et Narcejac,” writes Claude Lalande, Assistant Director, Animal Compliance Office. “The original story was set in WWII Paris. I’m curious to see the difference with the movie set in 1950’s San Francisco. I enjoyed the same exercise a couple years ago with Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette The Birds, set in her native Cornwall, and Hitchcock’s classic movie set in California.

“I remember reading way back when The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, after seeing the best ghost movie ever, The Innocents, based on it.  On the theme of ghost stories, I also read The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, the basis of the movie The Haunting.  I guess it’s an old habit.”


Nicole Perkins, an undergraduate student in biochemistry, has compiled an ambitious list for the holiday.

Young Woman Reading an Art Magazine, Einar Jolin (1919)

While in transit to see her family south of the border, she plans to reread Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder and Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood. “Both are serious and heartfelt without being dense, and convey emotional transition for a time of physical transition across space and time,” says Perkins.

She also wants to read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. “I’ve started both before and never finished either,” says Perkins. “Long plane rides provide the ideal opportunity for completion.”

For the holiday itself, Perkins wants to read some fiction, including Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (“rereading an old favorite”) and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (“for the first time, well-recommended).

On the non-fiction front Perkins will tackle Simone de Beauvoir’s All Said and Done, and The Second Sex (“have been very curious about her work, especially as women tend to be underrepresented in the classical philosophical canon”).

Perkins will also peruse a bit of poetry, including Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Gary Snyder’s Danger on Peaks (“like the new two in transit, have started both of these but never finished; they may be saved for the trip home”)


Not normally at a loss for words, the usually effusive David Syncox, sent a succinct list of one. “I have an oldie that I really want to read: Jack Reacher, Running Blind, by Lee Child,” says the Skills Development Manager, Teaching and Learning Services.


Will Straw, James McGill Professor of Urban Media Studies in the Dept. of Art History and Communications Studies, has a trio of books on tap for the holidays.

Three Sisters (Les Trois soeurs), Henri Matisse (1917)

“Violette Nozière, la fleur du mal: Une histoire des années trente, by Anne-Emmanuelle Demartini is about one of the most sensational murder cases in France in the 1930s,” says Straw. “Violette Nozière, a young Parisian woman who wanted a better life, poisoned her parents.  The murder was covered widely in all media, taken up by the Surrealists as a case of the oppressed fighting back, and turned into a well-received movie in 1978. This new book, by a French professor of history, sets the case it in the context of interwar French politics, and looks like a comprehensive study of the case.”

Straw will also crack open Peter Davidson’s, Last of the Light: About Twilight, which, Straw says “is about the ways in which the end of the day has been represented in art and literature. I read everything about night, and this looks like a beautiful book.”

Finally, Straw plans on reading something with a more local flavor. “Montreal: 375 Tales of Eating, Drinking, Living and Loving is by my friend Kristian Gravenor, and I’m eager to devour this,” writes Straw. “No one is better at Kristian at digging up information on Montreal’s sordid and sensational history, and having followed some of these stories on Kristian’s absolutely essential Coolopolis blog I’m eager to read the whole thing.”


A regular contributor to our reading lists (and this year’s summer photo gallery), Abida Subhan from the Dept of Animal Science and Dept of Natural Resource Sciences, is looking forward to reading Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann.

“It was recommended by my daughter-in-law who knows my taste and I happened upon it at an airport in India during my travels recently,” writes Subhan. “I thought it was a sign so I picked it up. It is a heavy subject so if time permits I would like to read a lighter book like a Nora Roberts that is lying on my night table or, better yet, re-read Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance.”


Audrey St-Yves, a Master’s student in Animal Science, is another regular reading list contributor.

Reading Woman in the Villa Garden, Róbert Berény

“The first book I’ll be reading during the holidays is The Confessions of a Young Nero, by Margaret George,”says St-Yves. “I have had this book on my list for over a year now and, with time set aside for myself this Christmas, I’m finally getting around to it. I swear!”

Also on her list is the Heir of Novron, by Michael J. Sullivan, the final set of books in the Riyria Revelations series. “This series is made for blissful and comic escapism,”she says.

“Finally, on my list is Dr. Dorsey Armstrong’s The Black Plague: The World’s Most Devastating Plague – simply because, what are the holidays without just a hint of morbidness?”


“I really love this [McGill Reads] feature (I look forward to it each year), so I thought I should try to contribute this year,” writes Melanie Dirks, an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Psychology.

“I have resolved that this Christmas Break I will finally read War and Peace. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky delivered an amazingly fresh translation of Anna Karenina, and their rendering of War and Peace has been occupying an intimidating swath of my bookshelf for years now,” says Dirks.

“But, if I am being honest, I will almost certainly be distracted by Reckless Daughter, David Yaffe’s new biography of Joni Mitchell, which I am hoping will provide some insight into Mitchell’s uncanny ability to write deeply personal lyrics that resonate so broadly. Perhaps I will compromise and read War and Peace while listening to Blue.”


Dilson Rassier, Dean of the Faculty of Education and a regular McGill Reads contributor, was out of town when the call for submissions went out. Luckily, he made it back in time to sneak the following picks in under the deadline.

Portrait of academician Ivan Yanzhul, Vladimir Yegorovich (1907)

On the fiction side, Rassier will read these books:

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco. “Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, with history, literacy, and politics with first-class writing,” says Rassier.

Como la sombra que se va, by Antonio Muñoz Molina. “One of the latest books of one of my favourite authors, who also wrote the classic La noche de los tiempos (In the Night of Time).

Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre. “The latest book of John le Carre, just in time for those who enjoy a spy novel during a break,” says Rassier.

Rassier’s sole non-fiction pick is All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, by Marshall Berman. “A book about political and social revolutions of the nineteenth century, using a mix of ideas coming from varied sources such as Goethe, Dostoevsky, Marx, among others,” says Rassier. “The book explores how such different ideas brought us the concept of modernity to replace old concepts and theories.”


Aziz Choudry, Canada Research Chair in Social Movement Learning and Knowledge Production in the Dept. of Integrated Studies in Education has a trio of titles on his holiday list.

Indigenous Peoples as Subjects of International Law, edited by Irene Watson. “I’ve already used Tamara Starblanket’s powerful chapter on genocide in a course this term and look forward to reading the rest of this new international, interdisciplinary collection which includes important Indigenous scholars and thinkers like Sharon Venne, Steven Newcomb, and Watson herself,” says Choudry.

The New Book, Jessie Wilcox Smith (1915)

“I’m re-reading Nicholas Hildyard’s excellent Licensed Larceny: Infrastructure, Financial Extraction of the Global South, a critical analysis of financialization, ‘development’, and popular resistance, packed into around 100 pages,” he writes. “It’s a great book to use for courses on international development, political economy, and social movements, but also accessible for broader audiences.”

Also on Choudry’s list is Margaret Andrews’ Doing Nothing is Not an Option: The Radical Lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley, “which I bought at the Walter Rodney  conference held at the University of Westminster in 2016. It’s a biography of two Black anti-imperialist and anti-racist activists – and publishers – who founded the Bogle L’Overture publishing house in London in 1968 – and strongly resonates with the social movement archival and education work that I’m engaged in within and outside of academia.”


As a Trade Buyer at Le James – McGill University Bookstore, Kimberley Stephenson has been tempted by her share of great books. Enough to know her limitations. “I never seem to get around to reading that fourth or fifth book, so I am going to restrict my choices this year,” she writes.  “I am going to start with Montreal Noir, edited by John McFetridge and Jacques Fillipi. It’s a collection of dark short stories by Montreal writers, including McGill alums Peter Kirby and Catherine McKenzie.”

Quintilia Fischieri, Federico Barocci (circa 1600)

Then, she will move on to on to the 1,000+ page Grant, by Ron Chernow. “This will be the second massive tome about Ulysses S. Grant I have read,” she says. “And, if I have time, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.”


“It’s been just over a year since I graduated with my Master’s degree in Critical Disability Studies – what used to be required reading for my classes have now become what I like to read for pleasure,” says Rachel Desjourdy, Access Advisor, Office for Students with Disabilities. “I have cracked open my brand new copy of Academic Ableism, by Jay Timothy Dolmage and am looking forward to reading through it. You know you’re in the right career when what you do for work, and what you do for pleasure is rather seamless.”


And then there is Daniel McCabe, Editor-Par-Excellence of the University’s flagship alumni magazine, The McGill News, and campus eminence grise.

“Having recently heard Zadie Smith speak in Montreal (and a big shout-out to the Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore for bringing people like Zadie Smith to town), I’m really looking forward to reading her most recent book, Swing Time,” writes McCabe. “Smith has a deft touch for dealing with complex issues in a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining way. It’s like happily devouring a Coffee Crisp only to realize it was kale all along.”

McCabe has also lined up My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris, which he calls “a one-of-a-kind graphic novel by a singular talent who had to teach herself how to draw again after a horrific experience with West Nile Virus. Inspired, in part, by old monster movies and horror comics, it’s a murder mystery and a coming-of-age tale that looks at who the real monsters are in this world.”


Kendra Gray, Internships Officer in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is intent on “finishing books” during the break.

Little Eber Reading, Christian Krohgs

Gray will continue reading Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, “which I am enjoying immensely. The book follows four Russians, and through the portrayal of their experiences, paints a picture of recent events in Russia,” she writes. “I have a long-standing interest in Russia, and have really enjoyed how this book pulls a complicated country’s (not so distant) historical events together in a way that ‘clicks.’”

Also on deck is Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. “On the occasions I have heard Karen Armstrong speak, I’ve found her to be brilliant, so I wanted to read her thoughts on the connection between religious and violence – and rethink whether the assumed connection is in fact accurate (especially given how these assumptions turn into biases and policy decisions),” says Gray.

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