Photo: Courtesy of The Social
“The Social” Butterfly Jessica Allen Alights on Her Favourite Titles
The Hamilton, Ont.-based journalist loves literary fiction, with Pulitzer winner Jean Stafford and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro topping her list / BY Shinan Govani / January 6th, 2023
Bespectacled and gregarious, Jessica Allen has long been something of a MVP in the cast of women that make up the long-running Canadian television chat fest, The Social. A charm bomb, some call her. Although anyone who knows her is well aware that Allen likes to read almost more than she likes to talk.
A former columnist for Metro newspaper and assistant editor at Maclean’s, the one-time waitress also spent some time in Italy (she is an art history major!) and the book collection in her Hamilton, Ont., home positively heaves. Allen recently gave us the greatest hits.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
You know that famous Faulkner quote? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is my struggle with books. There are so many new releases I want to read, but what happens is that I tell myself I’ll get to them just as soon as I’m done catching up on a list of older titles I want to cross out, which means I am perpetually caught in the past. So this year, it was a toss up between The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford and Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell.
What book can’t you wait to dive into?
Right after I finish Middlemarch – joking – I’m excited to get my hands on George Saunders’ Liberation Day, his first collection of short stories since Tenth of December, which I enjoyed a great deal. I’d also like to read Monica Heisey’s debut novel, Really Good, Actually.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
For me, the answer to this question is always changing: in my twenties, I would’ve said Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. In my thirties, it would’ve been a lot of nonfiction – funny stuff by David Sedaris, and food stuff by Jim Harrison. My forties? Anton Chekhov meant a great deal to me, because his ability to squeeze out such extraordinary emotion from these often quiet, tiny lives made me feel more human, less alone, and part of something extraordinary. But today? Right now? I’ll go with The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’d seen the movie multiple times, and in year one of the pandemic, I decided to read the source material. Oh boy. I cried while reading it.
What book completely changed your perspective?
Some kids get a car on their 16th birthday. My dad handed me a copy of Bertrand Russell’s essay: “Why I Am Not a Christian.” But it was A History of Western Philosophy that made a light bulb go on in my post-academia brain. I’d spent years trying to decipher difficult and dry texts. Then, here Bertrand was, distilling pretty heavy stuff in a clear, concise – even entertaining – way. It was a revelation to discover that heavy subjects need not be written in a heavy-handed style.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
Because I would be a nervous wreck trying to keep up with most literary dinner mates, I’ve decided on a dinner for eight. Gore Vidal would host it – not just for the gossip, but because it could take place at his Italian villa. I’d include intellectual powerhouses Zadie Smith, James Baldwin and Noam Chomsky. I’d throw in Elena Ferrante for some mystery, Nora Ephron for some humour (maybe she could make her famous salad dressing) and, finally, Christopher Hitchens. I’d be curious to see, once he was brought up to speed on current events, if he’d still defend some of his controversial opinions. Maybe he’s changed now that he’s on the other side (oh God, he’d hate that).