Books I’m reading — and tossing!


Loved this one!


By Caitlin Kelly


Our apartment building has a shelf near the laundry room where we exchange books and magazines. I’ve had some great luck, (“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn), but recently gave up on three books I found there — one by (of all people!) John Grisham, since the book was all scene-setting with no apparent action or plot to be found.

Another was one of those Scandi-noir murder mysteries (ditto) and the third (sigh) was “NW” by Zaidie Smith. I gave up within two chapters. I loved White Teeth but have been so disappointed by others of hers.

I’m still slooooooowly getting through “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s doorstop history of the war in VietNam. I’m meandering through “The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford, who manages to make the life of a middle-aged New Jersey realtor compelling.

A good friend keeps urging me to write a novel, as I’ve had the vague outlines of a murder mystery in my head for a decade. The idea is a little terrifying, even though many journalists have made a successful transition to fiction.

But I tend to keep returning to non-fiction as I am so often annoyed by fiction and resent wasting time on it.

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Later made into a film, a portrait of a Parisian concierge and the upscale apartment building where she works.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

Loved love loved this tale of 18th century Japan. His physical descriptions are beautiful and mysterious.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

Written by a fellow Canadian journalist who once worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, apparently his portraits of his co-workers are pretty clear in this charming novel about…a newspaper in Paris.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Another doorstop, its size intimidating, I received this as a gift from a friend for my birthday two years ago. I’d been warned it was too long and the last third could well have used a heavy edit. But loved this one, set in New York City and elsewhere.

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

Not an easy read, but one of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read, a tale of ongoing friendship, also set in New York City — written (in her spare time!) in 18 months by an editor at The New York Times.

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

He’s probably best-known for “The English Patient”, (still one of my favorite films ever), but reading anything by this Sri Lankan-Canadian author is like entering a dream state, in the best sense. In the Skin is about Toronto (my hometown) in the 1920s and “Divisadero” about a California family.

I was recently given a copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo”, so that’s on the list.

I typically don’t read horror, romance, sci-fit, dystopian, Westerns or YA…

What have you been reading lately (or tossing?!)


59 thoughts on “Books I’m reading — and tossing!

  1. Robert Lerose

    Among the books that I’ve read recently:

    The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough. McCullough is a favorite of mine and this was his first book. I wanted to see how he got his start and to study his formidable narrative skills.

    I reread Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s by Milton Viorist. I first read it when it came out in 1979 and felt the need to revisit the promise, the achievements, and the turmoil of that tempestuous decade in light of current affairs.

    Truce by Jim Murphy, a nonfiction work for young adults about the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War One.

    I usually don’t toss out or give away books. They are part of my library and therefore my life and I just can’t part with them.


    1. These all sound fascinating.

      The only McCullough I’ve read is his history of the Brooklyn Bridge — but he massively short-changed the person who SAVED it, Emily Roebling, the wife of the engineer in charge of it (in fact the on of the man who won the project.)

      I need to muster the energy to tackle Robert Caro’s bio of Robert Moses — for anyone living in/near NYC a must-read.

  2. Robert Lerose

    Funny that you should mention the Robert Moses bio: I bought it at the start of the summer and am waiting to set aside the time to dive in. Caro’s reporting skills are highly regarded. I’m eager to see them in action.


  3. I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog! I read a bit of a mix… literary fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, non fiction, and some thrillers (there are two crime series I’ve really enjoyed, one set in the Hebrides and another in Shetland – it’s fun to read a proper page turner now and again, especially when it’s set somewhere I know!). One of my favourite books so far this year has been Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and I really enjoyed An American Marriage by Tayari Jones too.

    1. Margaret

      I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog, both the book and the film. It’s rare for a film to live up to a book in my experience, but this one was lovely. I especially liked the Japanese elements in the film. Lovely credits as I recall.
      Another friend has also recently discovered (and recommended) the Shetland series by Anne Cleeves. She also writes the Vera books. Are the Hebrides books by Peter May? I haven’t read them.
      Home Fire and An American Marriage are both on my TBR so we seem to have similar tastes.

      1. The film was heartbreaking….that book and the Impefectionists won my heart also because I know and love Paris, having lived there and visited many times.

        The Peter May books are excellent — and I learned a lot about the Hebrides.

  4. Oh, yes, found books, free to a good home finds, my favourite is one by Elizabeth Hay ‘Late Nights on Air’, found, dove into, and loved, and still cherish.

  5. I’ve read a couple from Kurt Vonnegut recently, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. Quirky characters in unusual situations and just a little bit serious below the surface, like a well baked lemon meringue pie.
    I had a birthday recently and a librarian friend of mine gave me this book titled “Under both Flags”. It’s a compilation of letters, diary entries and field reports from the Civil War. It’s the kind of book you can read in little bites and you probably should. Unless, that is, you already know everything about this exceedingly complex subject, then you probably shouldn’t read it at all.
    I’m working on a new wargame so I have lots of miniatures to paint. This means audiobooks. Right now I’m listening to “Commentaries on the Gallic Wars” by Julius Caesar. The translation is excellent and the reader is too, though his name escapes me.
    When I need to noodle off to sleep, I listen to a you tube channel called Horrorbabble. They do lots of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. It drones on a bit and it’s rare that I get all the way to the end without falling asleep. Mission accomplished.
    Last but not least, I’m reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, a book which needs no introduction. Admittedly I have never had a problem with my butler arranging the flowers in my drawing improperly, or any of the other near insurmountable hardships faced by the hard working dandies of nineteenth century London, but the language is exquisite. You’re right, Mr. Wilde, that wallpaper sucks.
    I noticed a picture above the comment window of some books we might share: Frances and Joseph Gies Life in a Medieval Castle/Village/Times. Good stuff.

    1. What a mix!

      I have a whole shelf on medieval life…and many other mostly unread books.

      Vonnegut is very cool — the world is bizarrely small enough that I spent a day as a young Toronto reporter following his wife, photographer Jill Krementz, around for the day as she shot for A Day in the Life of Canada…and today (!???) we’re FB friends.

      My life is weird.

      Have you ever read Tom Robbins? A bit Vonnegut-esque.

      1. Tom Robbins, eh? Eeeeeeexcelent (Monty Burns). I have friends in the library business so I’ll get one delivered.
        I don’t know if I have mentioned this one, but Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, did a book called Who Murdered Chaucer? which was very entertaining and insightful. It’s a great thing to read something that is witty and scholarly at the same time.
        Weird is good.

      2. Right?

        It’s why I keep grabbing books from the laundry room — and have made some great discoveries that way. Just not lately.

        For lighter fare, I may head to the library. I also have tons of reference/photo books, many of them on design, interiors, photography, antiques since I studied that at NYSID and remain passionate about the subject. I love just leafing through and sighing at lovely old things.

  6. I enjoyed ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ quite a bit and read it quickly (for me, anyway!).

    I tend to buy and read everything digitally (and have mostly done so back to before the Kindle existed) so I lose context about the ‘doorstop’ aspect.

    Currently reading a book that is right up there with the ‘murder mystery first novel’ thing you mention about yourself! It is ‘Where the Hurt Is’ by Chris Kelsey, who I actually followed because he is a well regarded jazz saxophone player and critic/blogger for music … so I was thrilled when he was writing a book, and even more thrilled that it is very enjoyable (well, so far – I’m about half finished).

  7. I have loved every word David Mitchell has written. Michael Ondaatje, on the other hand— I frankly can never see what the fuss is about. I enjoyed The English Patient, but everything else I’ve tried to read by him has just left me mystified as to why he is considered such a literary icon. I’m currently halfway through Lincoln in the Bardo and frankly the jury is still out. Unlike you I love SF, with dystopian lit being my favourite sub genre. Recently I have loved The Wanderers, which while it has an SF premise of a journey to Mars is a good character study. I pitched it to my book group recently as SF for people who don’t think they like SF.

    1. So interesting…favorite writers are so individual! I haven’t read Cloud Atlas yet (it’s on my bookshelf) but saw the movie — and it was weird as hell.

      I’ve heard mixed reviews of the Bardo book .

      I probably should try some new-to-me genres, for sure.

  8. Based on that list of books, I’ll never get on your reading list (though maybe I’ll get on that shelf by the laundry room).

    Currently I’m reading “Victoria: A Life” by A.N. Wilson, a biography of Queen Victoria I received for my birthday from my friend. I’ve a soft spot for Victorian England, so this is right up my alley. Next on my list is a book on the weirder views on Victorian sexuality, and a book of essays by famous horror writers on the craft of writing. I’m also constantly in audio books. Currently I’m listening to “A God in the Shed” by J-F Dubeau. I also listened recently to “Kill Creek” by Scott Thomas, and I’ll probably listen to “Dark Age” by Pierce Brown and another Great Courses audio lecture (not sure which yet) in the future.

  9. your suggestions all sound intriguing. ‘the english patient’ is one of my all-time favorite films as well. like you, i’ve reached a point in life where i don’t struggle with books that don’t draw me in anymore, i choose to move on and use my time on books that i enjoy.

    i currently reading or have read these three books. all excellent for various reasons:

    1)The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

    takes place in late 1930s – mid 40s, in german-occupied paris and surrounding villages.
    (Makes you question what you would do, nothing is black or white)

    2)Beartown – Fredrik Backman (author of ‘a man called ove’ which i also loved)

    i had no idea i would love this one as much as i did. takes place in a small scandinavian town in a forest, whose identity revolves around hockey. also makes you question your values and how you would handle things. something about it grabs hold of you.

    3) A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

    takes place in early 1920s moscow. about a former aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in a classic grand hotel. lots of wit, will, and spirit in this one. he is as charming a character as you will ever meet.

  10. Margaret

    How I love book new book recommendations! Anyone would think that I don’t already have a TBR list as long as your arm. I’m inclined to read lighter fiction but I do like it to be well written.
    Recent favourites include “Still life with breadcrumbs” by Anna Quindlen and “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng.

    1. I’ve never read AQ’s novels. I know Ng’s new book is doing really well. I read her last one and didn’t enjoy it much. I find too many novels perfectly well-plotted with decent characters and dialogue — all the right elements. But…meh. No action or I just don’t care about the characters enough to keep going.

      My light stuff these days is crime/mystery — but the John Grisham I picked up was so rudimentary! I was halfway through and all he had done was keep setting the scene.TOSS and Zzzzzzzz.

      1. I do sometimes wonder how so many badly written books get published. Does that sound mean spirited? Probably. I like books where I feel a sense of connection with the characters. The best books are where you think about the people and wonder how they are doing.

  11. Love the laundry room sharing idea! I’m with you in Zadie Smith’s followups. Muriel Barbery’s novel was one of my all-time faves. Just finished a novel by Bradley Somer called Fishbowl. Masterful and quirky fun. Also have fiction ambitions but when I read something so well written it is humbling.

    1. It’s a great place for me to toss my dozens of magazines as well.

      That novel sounds interesting…

      I need to carve out time if I am ever to even try to write a novel. I agree that well-done ones are very intimidating.

  12. Gonna take you on a bit of a left turn here – but the most impactful read for me recently was “The untethered soul” by Michael Singer. Literally rewired my brain. It’s a short read but so insanely helpful.

    Also, you’re not into Dystipian – but I’ll also offer up Margaret Atwoods non-distopian Cat’s Eyes would be up your alley (set in Toronto). Fiction, fantast well it’s like a historical false world – but so interesting. “The City of Saints and Madmen” by Jeff Vandemeer is a beautifully written story – sad, hilarious and sort of ignites your imagination in a way you never thought possible. It seems believeable.

    It is the only book I’ve read twice… like you I avoid fantasy, and typically read alot of modern classics but this book stands out. I’m going to order a few of your reccomedations, thanks for sharing them with us!

    1. Thanks…I have read Cat’s Eye and I never really miss Toronto but it made me cry with homesickness as it mentions the ravines, which are also a part of my Toronto childhood and which still so define the city. Washington, DC reminds me a lot — in places — of Toronto, with similar ravines and neo-Georgian houses.

      Thanks for the 2 recommendations.

  13. I loved all of Gillian Flynn’s books. And the Girl with the Dragon Tatoo series. I often read non-fiction books written by female comics, like Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. Also lots of self-help type books. Right now I’m really enjoying “Me Before You” by JoJo Moyes. I’m kind of all over the place with what I read; it just depends on my mood.

  14. Just started reading Heartburn by Nora Ephron, a slim ‘novel’ (novel in quotemarks because as she acknowledged, it’s based on events in her life) which has already had me laughing out loud as I read. I recommend it! She has a wonderfully comic style, which manages to be sad and funny at the same time.


  16. I’m currently reading Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Here comes the sun” – a vivid potrayal of three generations of Jamaican women… Before that I read “The Vanishing Futurist” – a brilliantly-told story about the Russian revolution from the persepctive of an English governess in Moscow. Also recently read Austen’s Emma, which was laugh-out-loud funny and so sharp. Now that I’m working on a novel myself, I’m reading fiction with a much greater awarenss of storytelling and character development. Also: I’m a huge fan of Zadie Smith but I also found NW hard-going. Would definitely recommend Swing Time though.

    1. Thanks!

      These all sound really intriguing — and I’m in awe that you’re tackling a novel. The one time I tried writing one (a thriller, in the 90s) someone said all my characters sounded alike and I had no idea how to fix that. But members of a writing group loved it…Feedback is helpful.

      NW was just…boring. I loved White Teeth and hated the one about the rich kids in America.

      I also recommend Claire Messud. The Woman Upstairs is…BOOM!

      One writer endlessly praised (and I can’t stand — have tried 2 of her books) is Rachel Cusk. I simply don’t get it.

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  18. Great recommendations in this thread!

    I needed a break from “serious” books and am currently reading Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld and thoroughly enjoying it—well-written, funny. I also read two Amy Bloom books—Away and White Houses—very different from one another, not funny but both good. I’m in two book groups and there is plenty to talk about in Educated by Tara Westover (memoir, grim but redemptive) and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (grim, but fascinating). I’m not great at reading violence but thought Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles was very good, despite being downright gruesome in parts. And I keep recommending The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert to everyone since I read it a couple of years ago. I am not an Eat, Pray, Love fan and was ready to dismiss her as a writer til I read Signature. It’s a little long in parts but mostly fabulous.

    As for the Joni Mitchell bio, I wish I’d never read it. I’ve loved Joni for decades and could hardly wait to read it, but it turns out she’s not a very nice person. Which is fine, I just wish I didn’t know that. And I also really disliked the way the author was so clearly in love with her and commented on her physical beauty constantly—fine if it moves the story forward, but totally unnecessary if not. But, to each her own!

    1. Thanks for all of these!

      The Westover book does sound really interesting — not sure this is a summer I can handle gruesome as we’ve had too many real-life scares with our health and friends’ deaths to process.

      I would highly recommend Stittinfield’s An American Wife, a sort of fictional bio of Laura Bush. I didn’t expect to like it, but I did.

      And, I agree with you about the Mitchell bio. It was painful to read about her less-sunny side, for sure. I also read bio’s of Leonard Cohen (excellent) and I read Keith Richards’ autobiography. If you like (?) music, in general, David Byrne (Talking Heads) wrote a phenomenal book called How Music Works. I discovered it at a friend’s house and couldn’t put it down.

  19. Andrea

    Loved all your faves, aside from The Imperfectionists (haven’t read), and A Little Life. Seem to be the only person who didn’t rate that book — found the characters and storyline unconvincing.

    My summer reading recommendations? Everything by Elizabeth Strout (had a complete binge), Less by Andrew Sean Greer, and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney.

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