Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?

How?

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

How to be a successful writer: my video

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a new video, thanks to Abby Lee Hood, who generously included me in her ongoing series of writer interviews.

It’s 1:08 and we talk about how to (re) define success in a world that too often equates making a LOT of money with being “successful”. I argue there are other metrics, as writers and as human beings.

Hope you enjoy!

14 new books!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve never been someone who likes online shopping which the pandemic has forced most of us into.

New York State now has one of the U.S.’s lowest rates of infection, so some retail stores are now open again as long as everyone is masked and usually limited to three people in a store at once.

On a recent short break upstate, thanks to two very good bookstores in Woodstock, NY, I splurged on fourteen new books, the largest such purchase I’ve made in many years:

 

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From left to right, top row…

A collection of essays by an Irish writer whose work I don’t know at all.

A novel by the British author Alan Hollinghurst, whose Line of Beauty is one of my favorite books.

How to Write a Book Proposal — since I have done nothing at all on two  book ideas I keep talking about and never working on.

A collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit who seems to get rave reviews from everyone and who I have never read.

Have heard great things about Lanier’s book — and as someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, very curious to read this.

More fiction.

All my Facebook friends — many of them fellow writers — raved about this when I posted the photo of Beryl Markham’s book.

bottom row, left to right:

Another much-praised novel.

Don’t know this Norwegian’s work at all!

Time to explore New York state much more locally since almost no other country will let us in right now.

Lab Girl is a science memoir — as I’ve recently been interviewing scientists for a variety of stories, this seemed timely.

Have no idea about this book at all!

Big Magic is a book about creativity and I can always use a boost of inspiration.

That last book was staring out at me on a display and simply looked lovely.

 

Recently read:

All The Light You Cannot See, a novel by Anthony Doerr (liked it)

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (loved it)

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work

Keep it Moving!, Twyla Tharp

 

Any great new books you’re reading?

Resilience is a learned skill

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In my last blog post, I named some of the worst experiences I’d faced in earlier years, and several people commented on how tough they were.

Or how tough I must be to have weathered them.

I later realized there were two more years that were also very difficult, one when I was 14 and another right around my 20th birthday.

What I also realize, looking back now, is what made the first one excruciating and the second one less so, was having emotional support, people who love me who really stood by me through it all.

When I got a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, right at my birthday in 2018, I was floored and deeply surprised by the flood of love and support and good wishes, cards and gifts and flowers, that people sent to me. One woman I know really only professionally, who lives far away from me, sent me a bracelet with the word I chose — onward. Even though I did a lot of crying and was very scared, knowing how many people were with me in spirit was incredibly helpful.

My late mother suffered a tremendous amount of health problems — multiple cancers (which she survived), COPD, a late-life colostomy — but she, until that point, was relentlessly determined to just get on with it.

Her expression, whenever face with yet another crisis: “What should I do? Jump out of my skin?”

I agree.

 

Life is rarely smooth and easy!

 

We get sick and injured and people we love get sick and injured and get dementia and fade in front of our eyes. We don’t get the dream job — or we do, and get fired or laid off. We may face (as I did, even at 30, when I arrived in New York seeking a journalism job) a six month job search. Or a search that never produces a job we want.

Or any job.

So the things I’ve faced and overcome are nothing compared to what others face — a drug-addicted or incarcerated parent; having to care for younger siblings; not being able to afford any sort of education with which to escape poverty.

Chronic poverty. Disability or chronic illness. Food or housing insecurity.

Or racism and daily microaggressions, as so many BIPOC are describing now. Police brutality and mass incarceration.

 

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Sometimes it’s all just a hopeless mess!

 

My experiences, for sure, have been much eased by my race, decent health, the skills to make a living, an excellent university education with no debt (Canadian) and the financial help of a relative.

But I also take pride in my acquired resilience when the shit — again!! — hits the fan, in not lying in bed in the fetal position weeping for days, escaping into drugs or alcohol. I’m not judging people who do.  People do what they can with what they have.

Surviving hardships creates resilience. It’s a muscle we only develop by using it, probably repeatedly.

 

You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re sorely tested.

 

Right now, thanks to the news and social media, I see a tremendous amount of whining and complaining, mostly by Americans, some who just can’t tolerate the slightest discomfort (wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places indoors) and whose selfishness is lethal as it continues to spread COVID-19.

This behavior sickens me. It’s stunningly immature.

Ironically, I gained a new client this year who is Finnish.

And Finns take pride in a national culture with a name — sisu. It means grit, determination, the willingness and ability — and pride in so doing — to tough things out.

 

.

 

“Fame” — 40 years later

 

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Lincoln Center, New York City

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve never seen this movie, you’ve missed a classic!

New York City practically vibrates with ambition — and schools thousands of super-talented teens at places like Juilliard, the School of American Ballet, and The High School for the Performing Arts.

In May 1980, a film about the latter (not shot in the actual school) was released, and its ebullient soundtrack still makes me smile — the title song won the Oscar for Best Song and the soundtrack won the Oscar as well.

It follows a handful of teens from their first year — as Americans call it, freshman year — through to graduation. One, Doris, has a frighteningly pushy stage mother. Another lives alone in an empty apartment, paid for by his absent mother. A third has a father who drives a classic yellow cab (long gone!) who bursts with pride at his son’s talent.

Friendships form. Teachers push them hard, one cautioning them how very difficult it will be to make a living at their art.

What struck me most, watching it again last week, was not the aching, yearning YES! I felt about it all in my early 20s…I had graduated university in 1979 and was just starting my journalism career — but the film’s  darkness and sadness as well.

The characters’ adolescence is filled with the angst and self-doubt we all experience, but often prefer to forget.

From Wikipedia:

In 1976, talent manager David De Silva attended a stage production of A Chorus Line and noticed that one of the musical numbers, “Nothing“, had made a reference to the New York High School of Performing Arts.[3] The musical inspired him to create a story detailing how ambition and rejection influence the lives of adolescent students.[5] In 1977, De Silva travelled to Florida, where he met playwright Christopher Gore. He paid Gore $5,000 to draft a script titled Hot Lunch, and provided story ideas involving the plot and characters.[5] De Silva took the project to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which acquired the script for $400,000.[1]

Director Alan Parker received the script after the release of his previous film Midnight Express (1978).[1][3] He met with De Silva in Manhattan, New York, where the two agreed that Parker would draft his own script,[3] with Gore receiving sole screenwriting credit.[5] Parker also enlisted his colleague Alan Marshall as a producer.[3] Gore travelled to London, England, where he and Parker began work on a second draft,[1] which was significantly darker than what De Silva had intended. De Silva explained, “I was really motivated and interested in the joy of what the school represented for these kids, and [Parker] was really much more interested in where the pain was in going to the school, and so we had our little conflicts based on that area.”[5]

 

What’s most striking to me, now, is how sheepish and scared the characters are about their racial and sexual identities — one finally pronounces himself, with barely disguised disgust, as “homosexual.” Another mocks his Puerto Rican roots. And AIDS was just on the horizon, and would soon decimate so much talent just like these youngsters.

Love the dance scenes.

Love Anne Meara as the tough-love teacher.

Love the honesty about the brutal competitiveness and insecurity that’s a part of life for every artist, no matter how talented or ambitious.

This song, I Sing the Body Electric, is just gorgeous…

 

 

 

 

 

Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

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I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

Headwinds, tailwinds

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.

Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!

When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.

Envy is also a fairly human emotion.

But…

I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.

And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible. 

And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!

But…

We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.

 

Headwinds can include:

 

Chronic illness

Mental illness

Serious illness

Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one

Disability

Caregiving

Grief

Miscarriage

Infertility

Unemployment

Underemployment

Lack of skills

Lack of access/income for training

Solo parenting

Poverty

Poor access, or none,  to transit/transportation

No medical care

Hunger

Lack of education and access to same

Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice

Misogyny/chauvinism

Becoming a crime victim

Emotional or physical or sexual abuse

 

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Luxury itself is a tailwind

Tailwinds:

 

Inherited money

A high-earning spouse or partner

A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood

Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money

Excellent health

Excellent education

Fluent English

Excellent work skills

Successful legal role models

Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice

Secure housing

Secure employment

Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments

Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you

A sense of self-confidence

A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit

People who actively love and check in on you

Solid, strong friendships

 

So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.

I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.

And I told her how much I admire her.

 

 

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I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.

We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.

How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.

It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.

The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.

Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.

 

The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.

 

 

Time for virtual museum visits!

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Charlotte Bronte’s dress and shoes, from an exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a quick overview of some great museums now showing their works online.

Let’s face it — one of the great joys of living in or near New York or London or Paris or Berlin or Copenhagen or so many cities worldwide — is ready access to its great museums and galleries.

It’s such a luxury to drop into the Met or MOMA or the Tate or the Carnavalet and cruise through, knowing you’ve got all the time in the world, as a resident and not a rushed tourist, to return when you please.

I was so lucky, the last day of my time in D.C., March 8, to see a show of Edgar Degas at the National Gallery. In retrospect, I should not have been in any crowded space! But we didn’t really know that yet.

 

 

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A detail, taken from the poster outside

 

It was a fascinating show and I learned a lot about him and how he captured his images of ballerinas, often in the studio. Where he never went! Photography was in use by then and he often, apparently, relied on those images.

And, if you know anything about ballet, there were a few of his paintings that were bizarrely fanciful — like one of a ballerina sitting on (!?) a bass and another sitting on top of the accompanist’s piano.

Nope! No dancer would ever dare.

And now, with tremendous loss of revenue, one of my favorites is truly under siege, unlike the Met which has billionaires on its board. This is the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side.

From The New York Times:

 

Experts said its loss would be significant because, while many museums chronicle the history of the rich — their mansions, art collections and aesthetic tastes — few depict the history of the poor, and the cultural life of everyday Americans.

“The Tenement Museum has so magnificently reconstructed that,” said Tyler Anbinder, a history professor at George Washington University who specializes in immigration, “right down to the soap boxes and the scouring pads that immigrants used. If an institution like that were to go under, it would be a real tragedy.”

Other museums around the country are losing at least $33 million a day because of coronavirus closures, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

Founded in 1988 in two once-dilapidated buildings, the museum offers tours of the restored tenement rooms as well as a permanent collection of artifacts, including document fragments, photographs and furniture.

 

I’ve been twice to the Tenement Museum and it was unforgettable.

 

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I went there in my early 20s, on my only visit to Hawaii. I have very few objects from that period…but here it is!

 

Some of my other favorites include:

The Gulbenkian, Lisbon…small, eclectic, surrounded by beautiful gardens

The Morgan Library, New York

Japan Society, NYC…small, intimate, often overlooked

The Neue Galerie, New York City…Secessionist art

Bishop Museum, Honolulu

The Guimet, Paris…Asian art

The Carnavalet, Paris…the history of Paris

The Cluny, Paris…medieval art

The Imperial War Museum, London

The Victoria and Albert, London

The Prado, Madrid

The Bardo, Tunis….which has an astonishing collection of mosaics

The Sackler, D.C….Asian art

The Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, Ontario….canoes and kayaks!

The Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson

Palazzo Fortuny, Venice…the studio of the legendary textile and lighting designer

Venice Naval Historical Museum…amazing array of boats

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm…devoted to one ship that sunk in Stockholm harbor the morning it first sailed in 1628

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

 

What are some of your favorite museums — and why?

 

A bookshelf tour…

By Caitlin Kelly

We all do it when visiting someone’s home — sneak a peek at their bookshelves to see what they read.

If I ever visit a home without a lot of books, I wonder about its occupants. Even when we’re broke, there’s the library.

So, for a change, I thought I’d show you some of my shelves and a look at my reading tastes; there are more in the living room. These are only one unit in the bedroom:

 

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I have a lot of reference books! The top one is an absolute gem, written by an Australian stylist and full of terrific images, great visual inspiration. Here’s her blog.

The second was a gift from the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum after I wrote about their exhibit of Manolo Blahnik.

The Log of the Molly B we bought from its illustrator, who was selling his watercolors on a Dublin street.

The Ear Inn is one of the coolest spots in New York City. I wrote about them in this story for The New York Times; the house is the oldest remaining structure in Manhattan — 1817 — and I was lucky enough to go upstairs from the bar/restaurant and see it for myself. It’s on the very western edge of Spring Street, many long blocks past where the cool kid tourists give up.

The Confident Collector and Old Silver speak to my love of antiques. The only way to score a true bargain, especially at country auctions, thrift shops and flea markets (as I have) is to study the genre of item you seek. If you study silver, for example, you know that EPNS stands for electro plated nickel silver, i.e. not sterling. If it’s sterling, it’s hallmarked and there’s an amazing array of symbols to know or memorize, like lions and castles, which are stamped into each piece and which offer information about where and when they were made.

 

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I don’t typically arrange my books by color, as many people now do, but these went nicely together. The marble-covered ones are my journals, which I haven’t read in a long long time; 1984 was a fantastic year (finally hired into my dream job, as a reporter for The Globe & Mail) but some of the others…not so much.

Skyfaring is one of the best books I’ve ever read, about the life of a 747 British Airways pilot. He now writes a weekly column for the Financial Times. His writing is exquisite and his insights really lovely; if you enjoy travel and aviation, I highly recommend it.

And, of course, a book on how to write better. I have a small collection of these which I use when I teach but also to refresh my own skills.

And a Sonos speaker — we love these things!

 

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So this is pretty eclectic!

l-r:

The letters of Martha Gellhorn are quite something; she was a legendary journalist and war correspondent.

My battered/beloved Narnia books, treasured since childhood.

The Net of Fireflies is a much treasured gift, signed,  from my father on my 12th birthday. The illustrations are gorgeous and it’s a book of haiku.

I keep dreaming of writing a biography but can never seem to find a good subject.

The Nellie McClung book was a gift from her grand-daughter, a good friend of mine; McClung helped Canadian women win the vote and, for a while, was pictured on Canada’s $50 bill.

 

 

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Hmmm, think I like Paris?!

Mais, oui, mes chér(e)s. I lived there at 25 on a journalism fellowship for eight months and have been back many times since.

I admit I haven’t yet read the next two books, very serious topics.

The HOME book is one of the best I’ve ever read. Instead of lavish and costly celebrity homes, it includes a wide array of real people, each of whom tell great stories about theirs.

 

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Some recent obesssions, like the Weimar Republic.

I stayed in a friend’s borrowed flat in Paris over Christmas 2014-2015 and on her shelf was a fantastic history of the period I quickly consumed. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. Add to that my favorite TV series, Babylon Berlin, set in the same period, and the film Cabaret, it seems like a good rabbit hole to explore further; the top book, horizontally, was the basis for Cabaret.

The two MacFarlane books are nice to dip into, about landscape and how we experience it.

The Moomins are the best! If you’ve never read Tove Jansson, they’re really fun.

The Montreal guidebook is really excellent. We go up a few times a year — about a six-hour drive.

The fat book, What Paintings Say, was a gift for Jose but he wasn’t into it, so I’m dipping in and out — same for the History of the World in 100 Objects, which I first heard about in 2010. Here’s the link.

I never read romance, science-fiction, fantasy or horror. Guilty pleasures include mass-market fiction, occasionally, and detective series like the Inspector Gamache books by fellow Canadian Louise Penny.

Occasionally, memoir. I admit, I’ve found the most popular ones — huge best-sellers like Educated and The Glass Castle — just too damn depressing, regardless of the authors’ later redemption.

I almost never read — and should! — essays, short stories and poetry.

As you can see, I massively prefer non-fiction to fiction.

I also really enjoy social history, like a book on 18th c London I read a few years ago.

What sort of books would I find on your shelves?

Genres?

Authors?