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.
Because I need to do something with my brain that’s just for me.
I play Scrabble on the computer at the advanced level and read a lot but want to keep the old head in gear and sharpen my wits as best I can.
I studied French for three years at University of Toronto, decades ago, but only to make sure I could work in it as a reporter, which I did in my 20s and 30s.
But I never studied French literature! Never poetry! What a loss.
I’ve been watching and enjoying the BBC series of “Les Misérables”, which prompted me to get a copy of the book — written in 1832 by Victor Hugo — from our library system.
I still have my trusty French-English dictionary from college, so feel ready to go.
I read out loud to practice my accent and had forgotten what a workout it is physically to speak French! I began studying it in Toronto in elementary school and later lived for eight months in Paris and have been back many, many times.
I like to say I am fluent, and am confident in most situations that don’t demand highly specialized vocabularies (science, tech, medicine, etc.)
We’ll see how many of its 1,651 pages (!) I can get through in the six weeks the library allows.
Have you ever read it, in any language?
Have you read other books in a language that is not your native tongue?
Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.
So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?
I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.
Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.
But how much of it can you take?
I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:
Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.
The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.
These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!
Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.
Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.
I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways, appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)
Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.
Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.
Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.
I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.
Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!
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…
The word itself means migration, or flight from danger and the songs are all about movement and restlessness.
On it, Neil Young — another Canadian — plays harmonica and the stunningly talented Brazilian bass player Jaco Pastorius makes this distinctively different from her previous work.
It was a tough year for me, my sophomore year at University of Toronto, both of my parents traveling far away, long before cell phones or the Internet, when a long-distance call to Europe or Latin America was really expensive. I was living on very little, freelancing as a writer and photographer while attending the country’s most demanding school full-time.
I dated all the the wrong men, (as Mitchell did, for decades), discarding them as quickly as I found them. Connection was both alluring and exhausting, a theme of that album.
Mitchell also has a home where my mother — also a fiercely independent traveler for many years — lived for a while, the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.
I met a friend of spirit He drank and womanized And I sat before his sanity I was holding back from crying He saw my complications And he mirrored me back simplified And we laughed how our perfection Would always be denied “Heart and humor and humility” He said “Will lighten up your heavy load” I left him for the refuge of the roads
The book offers a great ride through her life, from her years in small-town Saskatchewan to her initial success in the coffee-houses of Toronto to playing Carnegie Hall and touring with Bob Dylan.
It offers insights into her addictions — to cocaine and to cigarettes — and her deep ambivalence about marriage, which she tried twice.
It’s a compelling portrait of a fiercely independent woman.
It happened this week, as it has now for several years.
It’s when one specific check, (or cheque, as Canadians and Britons spell it), arrives. It’s a payment from a cultural agency of the Canadian government, an annual payment from the Public Lending Rights program.
There are 30 of these programs worldwide, but only one in the Americas, so I’m fortunate to be Canadian and to be a participant — it’s a royalty system that pays people who have created books now held in public libraries.
I had never heard of it when I lived in Canada and only learned of it thanks to meeting a man whose wife was enrolled in it.
If you have published a book, or several, that meets its requirements, and have registered it, and it is held by public libraries, you’re eligible.
It is open not only to writers, but to photographers, illustrators, editors and — crucial to a nation that is officially bilingual (English, French) — translators.
I’ve published two books — both about life in the United States, albeit through the eyes of a Canadian — and both are still receiving this payment.
Last year I got $452, and this year $507.50 — love that 50 cents!
To determine who gets how much, the program samples seven library systems in French and English — that might be a major city like Toronto (my hometown, whose libraries bought multiple copies of Malled), or a collection of smaller ones across a province or territory.
If your book has been registered for 0 to five years, the payment rate is $50.75 for each hit (i.e. it is still in those library systems), dropping each year to $25.38 for those held 16 to 25 years.
It may seem a pittance, but it means the world to me because it means my work still has readers.
The lowest amount one can receive is $50 and the most — even if you have 20 books in circulation — is $3,552.50
The PLR has 17,000 registered and a budget of about $10 million; every year there are 800 new registrants and more than 5,000 titles added.
The check arrived with a charming letter from its chairman, his closing sentence: “I leave you with my best wishes for another productive year of creation.”
I so appreciate that my government supports the arts in this way!
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?
Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.
That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.
That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)
We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.
If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.
The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history; and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.
I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.
This week’s entire concert was improvised.
Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.
That was Wednesday night.
I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.
Back into the city!
I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.
It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.
I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.
In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.
We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.
On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.
It’s hardly as though we need any more books. We have hundreds already, many of them (ugh) still unread, even years after buying them, whether reference, history or fiction.
But who can resist a brand new book?
(I’ve just bought three more books: Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Hustle Economy [a bit too basic for me, 12 years into full-time freelance] and Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times best-seller that I’m enjoying but not bowled over by.)
The top three books in this stack were requests, given to me by my husband Jose for Christmas 2016.
I love the names of wine: gewurtztraminer, gruner veltliner, Vouvray, Muscadet, grenache, Montepulciano. (Dream second career? Sommelier, except for all that memorizing!) Jancis Robinson is someone whose work we read every week in the Financial Times. (My other favorite wine writer, a friend, is another woman, Lettie Teague, who writes for The Wall Street Journal.)
The next two books are a holdover from my childhood years growing up in Canada, where most of my reading material was published by Penguin; I’d read rapturous reviews of MacFarlane in the FT and am fascinated by landscapes and how we experience them.
The bottom four books were the happy result of browsing an indie bookstore, Logos Books, in Manhattan while recently waiting to meet a friend.
I so rarely spend time in bookstores — I would easily spend hunreds of dollars each year! — so I really enjoyed a good long browse.
The collection on offer was deliciously eclectic.
If you don’t know her or her work, Martha Gellhorn was a legendary war correspondent, ferocious and admired — and, incidentally, the third of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. She was the only woman to land in Normandy on D-Day and covered every war, determined to be there to record every detail, no matter what the obstacles.
I long ago read a biography of Antoinette May, another war correspondent — a birthday gift from a friend and Globe & Mail colleague. Smart, tough determined fellow female journalists give me role models!
I’ve never read anything by John O’Hara and, frankly, I just loved the cover. The story is set in 1930. I love reading about earlier eras.
A Little Life has received rave reviews, although some say it’s a very sad book. I very rarely read fiction — as you can see, with five of these seven being non-fiction — so I hope it’s good. (I was given The Goldfinch as a birthday gift two years ago and put off opening it for a year, having heard it was far too long. But I absolutely loved it, even though it is too long.)
I recently started re-reading The Illustrated Man, which I first read when I was 12. I was so impressed with it that I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, from my summer camp in northern Ontario, and sent it to his New York City publisher, Ballantine.
Within two weeks, I had a hand-signed reply, with his home address in California, a postcard I treasure to this day.
He was real!
He wrote back!
To a little girl in Ontario!
What I could not have known then was that he — also age 12 — was magically transformed by a chance meeting. This, from his official website:
Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped.
Books can do this to us.
They connect us to the past, to an imagined future, to ideas and questions and challenges and gorgeous images.
They transport us, without a need for tickets or passports or jet lag.
Here’s a piece that opens the kimono on one of the sadder moments in many author’s lives, from The New York Times Book Review:
I assumed the humiliations had ended. They began even before my book was published, when network morning shows that regularly had me on now refused my pleas for some airtime to promote it. Once the book came out in 2012, it only got worse…
Less than a year after publication, my publisher, Hachette, told me they were mulching the tens of thousands of remaining copies of my book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity,” and suggested I purchase copies while they still existed. I capitulated, sending a check to the very people who once paid me to write it…Perhaps the worst indignity is that Hachette sends me a statement each quarter listing my sales and charting my progress toward paying back my advance. Which is pointless unless Hachette pays royalties to authors’ great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren…
But after three years of suffering through my stupid quest to sell a book, I encountered an ignominy I didn’t even know existed. My 6-year-old son’s friend Livia came over for a play date, and her mom brought a copy of my book for me to sign… “Property of the Calgary Public Library.”
I’ve written two books published by major New York houses, and am delighted to have ticked the box on a life’s dream in so doing.
But, oy, it’s not what people think!
Authors are rich!
Hah. Some, yes, earn very great sums from their work, self-published or commercially-published. Often it’s not the books you’d think, but might be 100s of 1000s of copies of a self-help book, not just John Grisham or J.K. Rowling.
Those making serious bank see their work optioned for film and/or television and made into a major motion picture.
You get to choose your title and cover — of course!
Hah, again. Yes, if you’re someone they feel is important enough to their bottom line and whose prior sales offer proven clout. For the rest of us? Your contract offers only “consultation”, not “approval.” Luckily, in both instances, I absolutely loved the covers designed so thoughtfully by my publishers. The first title was mine and the second, (thanks!) came from the publisher.
You’d think every author knows exactly what to call their own book, right? Wrong.
Books tours are amazing
Maybe for some. The Big Names are flown to multiple cities and even multiple countries, met in each place by someone assigned to be their chauffeur and chaperone. The rest of us? That’s where a huge network of well-placed and enthusiastic readers, bloggers, reviewers and media pals is essential. Most “tours” today are by Skype, email, blog “tours” or phone.
Writing books rewards the solitary genius
Today, the first question every would-be author needs to answer is: ‘What’s your platform? How many Twitter/Facebook/Instagram followers do you have?”
Until or unless you can prove a potential audience of thousands — minimally 10s of thousands, millions even better — you’re likely to hit a wall.
Writing books helps you make money for years to come
Again, wildly variable.
Write a textbook used by thousands of students? Maybe. Literary fiction? Maybe not. Today’s “advances” — money paid to the author upon a publisher’s acquisition of the right to publish a book — are now typically paid out over years. My final payment (not unusual now) on Malled came a full year after publication.
Very, very writers ever “earn out” — i.e. sell enough copies to actually earn money beyond your advance. First, you have to repay your advance. That $25 hardcover price? You, the author, see only a small percentage applied from each book’s sale — meaning it can take years, decades or never to earn out and receive a royalty.
There’s also the visceral terror of turning in a full manuscript to be told it’s simply deemed “unpublishable” — and being asked for the advance back. I know someone it happened to, and have heard of others. Brrrrrr!
“Malled” needed a lot of revisions, so many I thought it might be impossible to achieve. Luckily, I had a smart/tough editor and we got it done. (Some readers, of course, savaged it anyway.) Tant pis, mes chers!
It’s deeply moving to me, and validating, to know my work is still finding readers years later.
Since a library book is bought once, (even multiple copies), it represents hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially lost sales and income.
Many nations offer this payment to registered authors — but of course not the United States.
Writing a book, especially of non-fiction, also establishes you as an expert; I was interviewed twice this past week, thanks to my books — by The Guardian (on retail) and The Christian Science Monitor, about women and gun use, thanks to Blown Away.
I really hope to write and sell a few more books. We’ll see.