So, what are you reading these days?

By Caitlin Kelly


Check out this great post, by a Halifax librarian, about the 164 (!) books she read this year.

I’m the only person I know who loathed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which she, too, adored and names in her top three favorites.

I probably shouldn’t admit this here — I’ve only read five of her 164. I, too, loved White Teeth and The Paying Guests, which I picked off a bookstore table.

There are several on her (fiction heavy!) list I’m curious about, including Yanigahara’s much-praised A Little Life.

But the vast difference between her choices and mine is also not surprising to me, because the books we choose, and love and rave to others about, are so deeply personal.

I know that some of you love (and write) horror, romance and science fiction, three genres I never touch.

I veer, always, to non-fiction, essay, memoir and biography.

Of course, being a writer, I gave and received books for the holidays this year; one of the ones I received is on the above list.

I gave my father the gorgeous new cookbook Vegetables by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I gave my half-sister, an ambitious amateur writer of fiction and poetry, a book of 365 writing prompts and I gave my husband, who grew up in (and misses!) Santa Fe, New Mexico, a book about Mimbre pottery.

I dropped into a great Toronto indie bookstore, Type, and impulsively picked up three new books — one that examines the use of language in poetry (a genre, embarrassingly, I never read), a book of essays written by women who work in technology and a memoir.

I also (always a question posed with trepidation) asked if they sell my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and they used to but did not re-stock it.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011


The glamorous life of the writer means, unless your book was a huge best-seller, the odds of it appearing in a bookstore a few years later are slim-to-none.

I still, very gratefully, receive emails from readers for both my books and also have received a healthy check through Canada’s Public Lending Rights system — a sort of royalty paid out to writers when their books are well-read through library copies.

(Much as it’s very satisfying to know my books have sold well to libraries around the world, every borrowed book, obviously, means one less sale.)

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I love to read, for all the reasons many of us do:

— to discover and enter new worlds, fictional and real

— to learn about a new part of the real world and how it works (or doesn’t)

— to better understand history

— to learn how to use and structure a compelling narrative

— to be inspired by lovely language

— to share someone’s story through memoir or biography

I grew up as an only child with little TV time, so reading was my default pleasure and source of amusement; I was reading and loving Greek myths when I was seven.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp for many years, I disappeared into books there to gain much-wanted and ever-elusive privacy and some sense of personal power.

I was in deep shit for laughing out loud reading my math textbook in supervised study hall — when inside it was Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals.

Before leaving for summer camp for eight weeks, I’d head to a long-gone Toronto bookstore, Albert Britnell, and choose eight yellow-covered Nancy Drew books. Every week, a fresh one would arrive in its brown padded envelope. Heaven!

Right now I’m reading John Keegan’s The First World War, which was a best-seller, and I can see why — tremendously researched but clear and detailed.

When back in New York, soon, I’ll be revising the proposal for what I hope will become my third work of nationally-reported non-fiction. But who knows? It’s difficult to sell a book proposal and there’s no guarantee.

Some of the recent books I’ve read and enjoyed, include:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This doorstop won her the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly. I was given this book by a friend for my birthday in June 2014 but didn’t read it until the fall of 2015 daunted by its size, that it’s fiction (which I often enjoy less than non-fiction) and what many smart friends said — it’s too long! It definitely could have used a trim at the end, but I loved it. Much of it is set in New York City, a place I know well now after living near it for decades, and she perfectly captures feelings and characters you find there.

North of Normal, Cea Sunrise Person

I’ll be offering a post soon that’s a Q and A with her; I reached out to her on Twitter to rave about it. If you’ve read and enjoyed the American best-seller The Glass Castle, this will resonate for you — a story of a little girl who survived a crazy and isolated childhood, in this case in a tipi in the woods of northern Canada. It is simply astounding to me that she survived it with such grace and lack of self-pity.

Isn't this cover gorgeous?
Isn’t this cover gorgeous?

Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker

I previously blogged about this gorgeous book, written by a British Airways pilot who flies 747s across the world. If you, like me, live to travel and love the smell of JP4, jet fuel, this one’s for you. Lovely lyrical writing.

What were your favorite recent reads, old or new?



38 thoughts on “So, what are you reading these days?

  1. As you can guess, I’m always reading, and my choices shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me (whether they be physical copies, e-books, or audio books): right now I’m reading the third Game of Thrones book, A Storm of Swords, which I bet will keep me busy for quite a while (970 pages long). Right before that, I read Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes, a novel adaptation of the popular video game franchise and co-written by game creator Scott Cawthon, and before that I read Career of Evil by Robert Gailbrath (aka JK Rowling).
    On the audio book side, in the past couple of months I’ve listened to Needful Things by Stephen King, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and right now I’m in the middle of Day Four by Sarah Lotz. Next month, when my Audible credit comes around, I think I’ll try some non-fiction and listen to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (I liked his book about the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, In the Garden of Beasts, so this should be good).

      1. I haven’t seen the show, so I can only tell you what I think of the books, and that while they’re very long, they’re also extremely well-written and fun to read. And they’re not constrained by budget or actor schedules or anything like that.
        As for “last two”, which ones do you mean? I can give you my opinions on them if you like.

      2. The 2 non-fiction ones you mentioned. πŸ™‚

        I can’t believe you’ve never seen GOT on TV. The theme music is gorgeous, the sets and costumes amazing. The violence….horrifying

        highly doubt they’ve skimped on budget, Rami! They fly the actors to Ireland, Iceland, Croatia, Malta….I even once recognized a brief alleyway scene shot in the 15th c town of Mdina, Malta — I was there in 2003.

      3. Well, I don’t have HBO to begin with, and I watch too many shows to begin with. And you know what? The books are always better. Right?
        I think you’ll enjoy In The Garden of Beasts, it was a very compelling and educational read. As for the other book, I’ve never read a non-fiction book about a serial killer, but I have a feeling I’ll enjoy it. It’s right up my alley, after all.

  2. Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, Yeats 3rd editions selected poems, nonfiction book called Nonsense, Quiet by Susan Cain, graphic novel called The Life Force…and always and forever 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez. Thanks for asking and and thanks for the great write on reading!

  3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (re-reading!), and Lights Out by Ted Koppel. So good! Skyfaring sounds fantastic – along that vein, did you ever read Night Flight by Saint-Exupery? Also great.

  4. i just completed ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls’ by david sedaris. recently read ‘devil in the white city’, ‘the water is wide’ by pat conroy and re-read ‘to kill a mockingbird’ with brand new eyes and appreciation.

  5. I love quirky, comic fiction and am increasingly drawn to memoir. Two books that stand out on this year’s reading list are ‘A Man Called Ove’ by Swedish author Fredrik Backman and ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed. Currently reading Roger Ebert’s memoir, ‘LIfe Itself’. All brilliant. BTW, I too was a childhood Nancy Drew addict!

    1. Thanks for this…I read “Wild” but found it disappointing (even though it’s a best seller made into a film.)

      If you like that sort of fiction, try Come, Thou Tortoise…a book I picked up in a B.C. bus station (!) and loved. She’s an author in St. John’s Newfoundland; also Alligator by Lisa Moore, a fellow St. John’s writer. I loved both of them.

      Nancy Drew was the best. πŸ™‚

      1. I enjoyed Wild (far more than the film) but the Dear Sugar columns were in a category of their own. Thanks for the fiction recommendations – love discovering new writers and especially fellow Canadians!

  6. I’m reading the short story collection by fellow Canadian Mavis Gallant, Paris Stories, and listening to All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Both have a connection to France and both are excellent. I can’t believe that I wasn’t introduced to Gallant in high school or university. She’s a wonderful wordsmith. Happy New Year!

  7. Thanks for the recommendations! I read The Goldfinch last year and loved it also although it is very long! I tend to prefer fiction over anything and gravitate towards magic realism, although I’ll read anything really. Now that I’m teaching I’m getting into teen fiction also which I love. I read The Hunger Games trilogy and Maze Runner which I really enjoyed. I also recently read The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell – I don’t think I’ve read a more beautifully written book for a long while. Currently I’m reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman which is one I’ve had lined up for a while.

    1. Thanks!

      This is so helpful to discover some new-to-me writers…I’ve been meaning to read Neil Gaiman for years as well.
      Had not heard of the Wolf Wilder so will go check that out as well.

  8. I did not like Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend either. And I’m a huge fan of Donna Tartt. I devoured her first novel, The Secret History, and it’s true that The Goldfinch, albeit beautifully written, is just too damn long. I’m also a big fan of Joan Didion and have 6 or 7 of her books. I recently purchased The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner and, again, as much as the writing is tantalizing, I think she lost the plot halfway through the novel. Right now I’m reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and highly recommend it. It’s fast-paced, superbly-written and at times you howl with laughter. The next book I buy will be Emma Healey’s bestselling novel, Elizabeth is Missing.

    So guess what I was doing exactly one year ago tonight??? I was with YOU in Paris!

    I’ve just reposted the post –

    1. And what a night that was! I lost (!!!!) that gorgeous fedora on a Manhattan street shortly after returning (but I have a photo of me wearing it) and still have those great 80s earrings — and memories! πŸ™‚

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  10. I just finished Fates and Furies. Well-written and worth the time, but stilted at times, I thought. Also, I’ve been reading The Goldfinch for weeks, because I don’t want it to end! I’ve started My Brilliant Friend. I’m intrigued by the whole series, because my Italian blood started in Naples.

    Other books I loved this year: The Dinner, by Herman Koch and Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please. Faith, by Jennifer Haigh was good. I read and enjoyed Rules of Civility and The Whites (both because you said so!)

    And I can’t stop thinking about Defending Jacob or The Last Summer of the Camperdowns.

    But I could have done without Apple Tree Yard and The Girl on the Train.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks, you too!

      I’ve been reading some furious convo’s about Fates and Furies between writer friends on FB, one who loved and one who hated it.

      Glad you enjoyed my recommendations. πŸ™‚

      I enjoyed Girl on the Train — they filmed it in the next town to where we live, so yellow GOTT signs were about for a few weeks directing cast and crew to the site.

      1. Yes…thereby preserving the fantasy for the rest of movie goers that this was still filmed in/near London! They will of course NOT include the Hudson River in the background, which seems impossible to me as the train tracks are right on the water.

  11. I always have a book on the go (usually fiction), so I read the Halifax librarian’s post with interest. I’ve only read seven of her 160 books, but there are some good reads on that list.

    I’m an infrequent reader of poetry too, but I discovered the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Oliver’s poems in 2015 and they struck a chord with me.

    I’m halfway through The Goldfinch, and I’m gripped by it…I’ve been staying up late to read more!

  12. The Goldfinch is still on my ‘to-read’ list (as is your own book, Blown Away, since I’ve already read Malled). There are so many books I want to read… my list is never ending, a bit like all the places I want to visit!

    Last year I really enjoyed The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (a memoir from a Lake District farmer who I interviewed for a newspaper back in the Hebrides), and a whole host of others. I love anything by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I’ve just started reading a historical account of the loss of the Iolaire off the coast of Lewis at the end of WWI (without giving anything away, you’ll come across it in the Lewis Trilogy!).

    1. I’ve heard great things about the shepherd’s book — would love to read that one. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was fantastic but I didn’t care for her later work.

      Have you read Claire Messud? The Woman Upstairs is something else…

  13. The Goldfinch was on my list of favorites reads (blogged 12/28/15) and Tell the Wolves I’m Home was on my 2013 list. Recently enjoyed After You by Jojo Moyes and Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Now reading Bettyville, a memoir by George Hodgson.

  14. Marion

    Two books I read towards the end of 2015 really were highlights and seemed to go together – Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes and the wonderful Oliver Sachs autobiography On the Move.
    Some fiction I’ve recently enjoyed includes The wolf border by Sarah Hall (wonderful evocation of the wild country on the border of England and Scotland), The anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader (historical) and Vanessa and her sister by Priya Parmer about Vanessa Stephens and Virginia Woolf. In the category of something completely out of left field I was fascinated by a “life and work” of the children’s writer Tove Janssen by Tuual Karjalainen. It was a beautiful book full of wonderful illustrations.

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