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.
Not a day goes by that I’m not reading for hours — newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs…
That’s what I read for pure pleasure.
Here’s some of my recent reading:
Kicking the Sky, Anthony de Sa
Loved this book. Loved!
I grew up in Toronto and, like anyone who knows their hometown or city well, I know its history when I was a teenager there and its urban peculiarities.
Toronto was stunned, in 1977, (I was in my second year at University of Toronto), by the murder of a young boy, a Portuguese immigrant named Emmanuel Jacques. He was raped and murdered and left on a rooftop.
It was ugly and terrifying and the city had never seen anything quite like it, at least not in recent memory.
Toronto is, then as now, very much a city of immigrants, and the Portuguese community was clustered in a few streets downtown. The women would scrub and wash their sidewalks, something I’d never seen anywhere else in the city.
This novel, by a man who grew up in that community himself, is so detailed and nuanced, so filled with moments you know he lived. It’s also set along an alleyway filled with garages, so much a part of Toronto as well.
His characters are indelible, his intimacy with the subject and the city and the backstory utterly compelling, told through the eyes of a 12 year old boy, Antonio Rebelo.
Although the murder is grim, his characters are not — and I highly recommend it.
(If you like or are curious about other novels set in Toronto, I also really enjoyed Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood and In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, better known as the author of The English Patient.)
The Killer Next Door, Alex Marwood
Wait, more murder and mayhem?
Not even sure where or when I bought this book, as it’s not my genre at all. But it’s very very good and very very scary.
Marwood, a London-based journalist, sets her novel in a seedy London boarding house filled with transients, one of who is very much up to no good.
Her characters, and their individual histories, are wholly believable, and if you know London a bit (as I do), you can totally picture this street and the characters’ English reticence that pervades every scene.
She also describes so well the cultivated anonymity of people who need a huge city to disappear into…until it happens to them in a way they hadn’t planned on at all.
Inside, Alix Ohlin
Whenever I go back to Canada, usually two or three times a year, I drop into a bookstore to see what’s on the shelves there, always finding fiction and non-fiction I just won’t see in an American bookstore, and prominently displayed.
I normally don’t read fiction, as I so often find it disappointing, but am enjoying this one, interlocking portraits of four people.
I enjoy reading stories set in places I know, allowing me to fact-check the work for veracity and detail while being able to picture scenes easily — this 2012 book is partially set in Montreal, where I’ve lived twice, and New York, where I’ve lived (nearby) for more than 20 years.
Her writing is clear, simple, unadorned, but she paints a picture of people who are complicated and private, trying to know themselves and one another, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.
I don’t, I promise, automatically reach for books about murder! (Trying to fathom what this inadvertent pattern of mine is saying about my current tastes.)
Yet here’s another, this one a powerful memoir by the older brother of a young boy who was snatched in the woods of Florida, and killed, on his bike, on his way to buy candy.
Jonathan was 11, and it was 1973 — again, a resonant time for me, as it was my adolescence, too, although far from the pine woods of Florida.
I found the book too long and sometimes repetitive, but, like de Sa’s novel, Kushner captures so well a lost sort of innocence, when kids roamed freely outside and they — and their parents –thought nothing of it.
And…on a totally different subject, I’m also reading The Genius of Birds, a new book of natural history by Jennifer Ackerman.
It’s a great read and I’m learning a lot. Our suburban New York balcony is in the tree-tops and we’re happily surrounded by birds, so I’m very curious to learn more about them.
We have swallows fluttering past each morning and evening, hear jays and robins and woodpeckers and crows — and once even had a red-tailed hawk land on our balcony railing. It was amazing!
Last year’s favorite book, by far?
The Goldfinch, a work of fiction by Donna Tartt, which I received as a birthday gift. MUST read that book, (and yes it drags at the end.)
We’re all so time-starved, between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.
Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!
In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.
Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.
As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”
I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.
I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!
My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.
In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from PeriodHome (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)
I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)
I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.
And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)
And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.
I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.
These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.
Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.
Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.
Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.
On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.
Some of the reasons I read:
What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?
Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?
Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)
Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.
Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me? Yes, please!
Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.
Great writing takes us there.
It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.
Where were you? Where are you now?
Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”
I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers
As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.
It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.
Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.
Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.
On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.
Depending on genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.
I’m the only person I know who loathed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which she, too, adored and names in her top three favorites.
I probably shouldn’t admit this here — I’ve only read five of her 164. I, too, loved White Teeth and The Paying Guests, which I picked off a bookstore table.
There are several on her (fiction heavy!) list I’m curious about, including Yanigahara’s much-praised A Little Life.
But the vast difference between her choices and mine is also not surprising to me, because the books we choose, and love and rave to others about, are so deeply personal.
I know that some of you love (and write) horror, romance and science fiction, three genres I never touch.
I veer, always, to non-fiction, essay, memoir and biography.
Of course, being a writer, I gave and received books for the holidays this year; one of the ones I received is on the above list.
I gave my father the gorgeous new cookbook Vegetables by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I gave my half-sister, an ambitious amateur writer of fiction and poetry, a book of 365 writing prompts and I gave my husband, who grew up in (and misses!) Santa Fe, New Mexico, a book about Mimbre pottery.
I dropped into a great Toronto indie bookstore, Type, and impulsively picked up three new books — one that examines the use of language in poetry (a genre, embarrassingly, I never read), a book of essays written by women who work in technology and a memoir.
The glamorous life of the writer means, unless your book was a huge best-seller, the odds of it appearing in a bookstore a few years later are slim-to-none.
I still, very gratefully, receive emails from readers for both my books and also have received a healthy check through Canada’s Public Lending Rights system — a sort of royalty paid out to writers when their books are well-read through library copies.
(Much as it’s very satisfying to know my books have sold well to libraries around the world, every borrowed book, obviously, means one less sale.)
I love to read, for all the reasons many of us do:
— to discover and enter new worlds, fictional and real
— to learn about a new part of the real world and how it works (or doesn’t)
— to better understand history
— to learn how to use and structure a compelling narrative
— to be inspired by lovely language
— to share someone’s story through memoir or biography
I grew up as an only child with little TV time, so reading was my default pleasure and source of amusement; I was reading and loving Greek myths when I was seven.
Sent to boarding school and summer camp for many years, I disappeared into books there to gain much-wanted and ever-elusive privacy and some sense of personal power.
I was in deep shit for laughing out loud reading my math textbook in supervised study hall — when inside it was Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals.
Before leaving for summer camp for eight weeks, I’d head to a long-gone Toronto bookstore, Albert Britnell, and choose eight yellow-covered Nancy Drew books. Every week, a fresh one would arrive in its brown padded envelope. Heaven!
Right now I’m reading John Keegan’s The First World War, which was a best-seller, and I can see why — tremendously researched but clear and detailed.
When back in New York, soon, I’ll be revising the proposal for what I hope will become my third work of nationally-reported non-fiction. But who knows? It’s difficult to sell a book proposal and there’s no guarantee.
Some of the recent books I’ve read and enjoyed, include:
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
This doorstop won her the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly. I was given this book by a friend for my birthday in June 2014 but didn’t read it until the fall of 2015 daunted by its size, that it’s fiction (which I often enjoy less than non-fiction) and what many smart friends said — it’s too long! It definitely could have used a trim at the end, but I loved it. Much of it is set in New York City, a place I know well now after living near it for decades, and she perfectly captures feelings and characters you find there.
North of Normal, Cea Sunrise Person
I’ll be offering a post soon that’s a Q and A with her; I reached out to her on Twitter to rave about it. If you’ve read and enjoyed the American best-seller The Glass Castle, this will resonate for you — a story of a little girl who survived a crazy and isolated childhood, in this case in a tipi in the woods of northern Canada. It is simply astounding to me that she survived it with such grace and lack of self-pity.
Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker
I previously blogged about this gorgeous book, written by a British Airways pilot who flies 747s across the world. If you, like me, live to travel and love the smell of JP4, jet fuel, this one’s for you. Lovely lyrical writing.
A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.
Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.
The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.
This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.
Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.
Then the dominos started tumbling…
Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.
Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational conglomerate, this is typically how it works:
— A source decides to share their story
Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?
— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.
Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?
— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.
They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?
— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.
They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.
— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.
They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?
— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.
Every month, Elle Decor magazine asks a designer about his or her must-haves. For some, it’s a name-brand pen or vehicle, or a luxury brand.
Here are (some of!) mine:
Newspapers and magazines, in print
Every weekend, I read four newspapers, all in print: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. I love taking an afternoon on the sofa to leaf through them, clipping books I want to read or shows I want to see. (I also look at the Guardian and Globe and Mail online.) By subscription, we receive about 20 magazines, from Wired and BloombergBusinesweek and Foreign Policy to lighter fare like Monocle, House Beautiful and Vogue. Yes, there are stacks everywhere. Otherwise, I’d never remember to read them!
No matter what the season, our apartment always has fresh flowers. For about $20 a week, I get enough beauty to make multiple arrangements for the living room, bedroom, dining room — even a few blooms in the bathroom! As we head into cold, dreary winter, even more essential.
A mixture of scents, including L’eau de l”Artisan, Bulgari’s The Vert, Opium and Prada Iris.
My 21-inch-deep bathtub
Bliss! With scented bubble bath (love Algemarin!) or oils, no better place to relax in solitude.
8-10+ hours’ sleep every night
Can’t run at my usual pace without it. If I skimp, it’s naptime.
My passport (and green card)
I treasure my Canadian citizenship, but am grateful for the legal right to live and work in the U.S.
The view from our top-floor apartment of the Hudson River
It hasn’t changed in decades. On July 4, we can even enjoy fireworks from five towns at once!
A ready stash of quality stationery
Nothing nicer than a thick, heavy piece of elegance with which to write a thank-you or condolence note; personalized is even better.
Earl Grey tea, poured into a bone-china cup with a saucer
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?