Trying hard to get off the computer and read more books.
Lots more books!
Five recently read:
Range, by David Epstein.
I wouldn’t have read it normally but got a free copy as research for an article and it was edited by a super-smart editor, (my editor on Malled.) The basic premise, comforting to me, is that being a generalist able to shift gears quickly and easily between ideas and industries (as needed) is a useful skill and one much derided in favor of being a specialist. I’ve seen this in my own worklife and as the (loathed word) “gig economy” forces millions of us into insecure work, these skills may be more important than ever.
Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney
Here’s a Vox story about Rooney and her books’ popularity. I have to admit I didn’t love this book, about two young Dublin women who used to be lovers and one of whom is now having an affair with an older married man. I would have enjoyed this book in my 20s or maybe 30s. Not now.
The Wych Elm, Tana French
Also by a hugely popular Irish author, whose other books I’ve enjoyed. Much as this set the scene well — also in Dublin, a city I’ve visited a few times — and offered powerful characters, this one also left me cold. It felt too long. Maybe I really am not a fiction reader?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick
Loving this one so far — the 1968 basis for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, two of my favorite films ever. I don’t normally read sci-fi but this is great.
Hmmmmm. This one was a reminder that privileged young women with powerful and connected parents can quickly and easily carve out a path in cut-throat New York media while dozens of talented and hard-working journalists able to even get a job can do theirs without drinking and drugging and breaking things — and getting second and third chances. Like many readers, I picked this up because I admired her late father, New York Times media writer David Carr. I also admire her skill as a documentary film-maker, and enjoyed her film about Olympic athletes and Larry Nassar, At The Heart of Gold.
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…
Partly to flee the daily insanity of life in the U.S., I’ve begun reading books much more than in recent years.
On a trip to rural Ontario, I made time one afternoon to browse a local bookstore at length and spent more than $200.
Here are some of my recent picks:
A Bright, Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan, 1988
Inspired by the recent PBS series about the Vietnam war, and with its images and names fresh in my mind, I plunged into it — after finding the book in an upstate Connecticut junk store for $2.
The writing is magisterial, truly extraordinary in its depth and breadth. While extremely detailed, it’s not boring or stuffy. If this war holds any interest for you, this is a great book.
The Risk Pool, Richard Russo, 1989
Loved this one! Russo writes about struggling working-class towns and the people, generally men, who live in them. I enjoyed his book “Empire Falls” and had had this one on my shelf for years. A story about a deadbeat father and his son, and the town in which they live, it’s a powerful portrait of how to survive an off-again-on-again parent, and eventually thrive.
Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann, 1901
It turns out I share a birthday, June 6, with Thomas Mann. This is the first book of his I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The pace is slow, with little action, but a stately progression through the decades of a prosperous small-town German family in the mid 1800s.
All of which sounds really boring, right?
Not at all. Each of the characters is relatable and recognizable from spoiled, twice-divorced Antonie to her ever-questing brother Christian to the reliable head of the family, Thomas.
A Legacy of Spies, John leCarré, 2017
He’s a master of this genre and has been for decades. If you’ve seen the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll have the characters’ names in your head as you read this, his latest.
A career spy, retired, is brought back to account for — atone for — the very work he was expected to do without question or remorse.
Transit, Rachel Cusk, 2017
This novel, nominated for Canada’s Giller Prize, was a big fat “meh.” I read another of her books and found it equally…not very interesting. It’s received rapturous reviews, too.
I’ve given her work two tries. That’s enough for me.
I recently treated myself to even more books, so cued up are Reckless Daughter, a new biography of fellow Canadian, singer Joni Mitchell and Endurance, about his year in space, by astronaut Scott Kelly.
My tastes, always, skew more toward history, biography, economics and social issues than fiction, which I so often find disappointing. I don’t read sci-fi. horror, romance or much self-help and I recently bought a book written for self-employed creatives like myself, seeking inspiration — but after 33 pages of banal repetition gave up in annoyance.
This week I’m working on an outline for what I hope might become my third book of non-fiction, having found a new agent who’s expressed initial interest.
What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?
Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.
But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!
Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.
I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.
So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.
I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!
Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.
I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.
Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?
To older followers of Broadside, a thank you — I loved hearing all your book recommendations!
Here are just a few of the many books I’ve read and loved, with the nationality of the author.
Most are memoir and non-fiction, with fiction listed at the bottom:
Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller. A memoir of growing up white in rural Zimbabwe with a mad mother. (British.)
When A Crocodile Eats The Sun, Peter Godwin. Another memoir of Zimbabwe, after its terrible wars, by a journalist now living in the U.S. (British.)
Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol. If you want to understand American apartheid — the stunning lack of social mobility that starts with often appallingly weak public education for the poor — read this powerful book. A classic. (American)
Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc. The best book likely written in the past 30 years about the daily life of the American poor. The writer spent the better part of a decade getting to know the women she writes about here, low-income women living in New York City. (American.)
The Creative Habit, Twlya Tharp. This legendary choreographer has tremendous drive and ambition, and her book offers many ways to tap and harness your own creativity. Life-changing book. (American.)
My War Gone By, I Loved It So, Anthony Loyd. A very dark work, this will make immediately clear the psychic costs of covering war. Not an easy read, but powerful and unforgettable. (British.)
“Are You Somebody?“, Nuala O’Faolain. An midlife female journalist talks about her life in no uncertain terms. She died of lung cancer in 2008, costing us a terrific voice. (Ireland.)
“Brown“, Richard Rodriguez. Cranky, smart, provocative, elegant. Must we view everything through the filters of race? Rodriguez told an audience at a writers’ conference he felt he was crying in the wilderness when writing this excellent book. (American.)
“No Logo“, Naomi Klein. This young writer has made the globe her niche. This fascinating book addresses the many political, economic and psychological effects of corporate control and globalization. (Canadian)
“Blown Away: American Women and Guns”,Caitlin Kelly. My first book, which examines how women and guns intersect — whether a woman is a police officer, FBI or military using it for her work or has been the victim of violence or a loved one’s suicide or a hunter. The book has 104 interviews from 29 states with women of all ages, races and income levels. Booklist called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.”
“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, Caitlin Kelly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012, this book has been compared to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed” about what it’s really like to work at a low-wage job in the United States. I worked part-time for 27 months in a suburban New York mall selling clothing and accessories for The North Face. It is being published in China in September 2012 and was nominated for the Hillman Prize, given annually to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”
“Lost Illusions“, Honoré de Balzac. This classic novel, written between 1837 and 1843, works just as well today as a guide to the symbiosis of ambition and greed binding would-be authors and their publishers. Follow the trials of Lucien, a naïve and ambitious poet. “You bite the hand that feeds you – and you can toss off an article as easily as I can smoke a cigar”, says a newspaper employee when Lucien struggles for decent pay. Plus ça change. (French)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. I love this book so much. Barbery is a professor of philosophy and a keen observer of human nature. Her story about the inhabitants of a French apartment building, and its concierge, is a wondrous work. (French)
Come, Thou Tortoise. Jessica Grant. The author is not a big name and this is her only book. I found it charming and touching, quirky without being cute or twee. (Canadian.)
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. She has written many, many books, but this one is my favorite, deeply evocative of my hometown (and hers), Toronto, and what it’s like to be a little girl. (Canadian.)
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje. Life in Toronto in the 1920s. His writing has a distinctly poetic, dreamlike quality. (Author of “The English Patient”, much better known.) (Canadian.)
The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. A fellow journalist and University of Toronto alum, he’s written a charming and touching fictional portrait of life at an overseas newspaper. This is one of my absolute favorites of recent years. (Canadian)
The Master andMargarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Loved this book! I literally could not put it down. (Russian.)
The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell. If you, as I do, love Japan, the 18th. century and deliciously descriptive writing, this is a book you’ll hate to put down. It’s a slow, gentle, lyrical book, like entering a dream. (New Zealand)
Falconer, John Cheever. One of the great American writers of the late 2th century. (American)
Triomf, Marlene van Niekerk. An astonishing book and thick as a doorstop. It’s graphic and shocking, but unforgettable portrait of a poor Afrikaaner family in the post-apartheid world of Johannesburg. (South African)
Anything written by Ray Bradbury, (American)
Anything written by Nadine Gordimer (South African)