Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

There are happy books and there are books you think…really?

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

There are books, whether novels or non-fiction, about alcoholism, drug use, family abuse, that can feel like a real slog. The subject is undeniably depressing, frightening, even terrifying and most of its characters are people you would never want to meet.

I admit, I didn’t enjoy reading a huge 2018 best-seller, Educated, by Tara Westover, about the terrible family she grew up with, eventually escaping to a better life. I was (however unfairly) impatient with her for staying so long in an environment that was so awful. An earlier best-seller, also by a white woman, Jeanette Wells, was 2005’s The Glass Castle. But I did enjoy a Canadian book like this, North of Normal.

One of the best books I read last year was also emotionally difficult, In The Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of lesbian domestic abuse. Now that sounds appealing! But her writing is extraordinary and it’s a great book.

I recently read the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. As I described it to a friend, a fellow journalist, she said she just couldn’t do it. I found that interesting as journalism, with our decades of exposure to some very tough stories, tends to harden us somewhat.

I did enjoy it, but it’s rough — a young boy, Shuggie, living in Glasgow poverty with an older brother and sister and a severely alcoholic mother, abandoned by his father.

I also found elements of it painful and hard to read because my mother was also an alcoholic, and the novel is filled with his hopeless hope that someday, someday, she won’t be — a fantasy painfully familiar to any child of an alcoholic.

The author, Douglas Stuart, survived a very similar childhood, so his ability to turn such grim fare into a compelling novel is impressive. And his background isn’t the standard trajectory of writing classes, workshops and an MFA — he worked in fashion design for decades and was writing it while working as the senior director of design for Banana Republic.

From Wikipedia:

In a conversation with 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo on 23 November, livestreamed as a Southbank Centre event, Stuart said: “One of my biggest regrets I think is that growing up so poor I almost had to elevate myself to the middle class to turn around to tell a working-class story.”[22] Discussing the “middle-class” publishers’ rejections he had received for Shuggie Bain, he told Evaristo: “Everyone was writing these really gorgeous letters. They were saying ‘Oh my god this will win all of the awards and it’s such an amazing book and I have never read anything like that, but I have no idea how to market it’.”[22] Stuart said in a 2021 conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall that winning the Booker Prize transformed his life.[36]

But I also liked a very tough book, Triomf, from 1994, by Marlene van Niekirk, the most celebrated Afrikaans author of South Africa. It’s dark as hell; the family she features even includes incest.

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

For some, voyeurism….thank God it’s not me!

For some, curiosity, having never experienced poverty and/or alcoholism, or life in a cult in the woods.

I hope, for some, as a way to develop or deepen empathy for people whose lives are wholly different from their own, as — in non-fiction — the storytellers have clearly been able to survive and thrive despite a really difficult earlier life. It becomes a narrative of resilience, not despair.

I admit, I cried hard at the end of Shuggie Bain, as it brought up a lot of unexpressed and painful memories of my own experiences of being “parentified”, always worrying about my mother’s health and safety instead of my own, (even though we were not, thank God, poor), and tied to a woman who was unable or unwilling to create a larger social safety net for herself. So reading a similar book can be painful but also cathartic — someone else really gets it. And, God forbid, someone else had it much worse.

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

NOTE: I refuse to use Amazon for any purchases, (I loathe its labor policies), so links to these books will not connect to their site.

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?

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!

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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?

 

Recent reading…

By Caitlin Kelly

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?

 

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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.

 

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All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr

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.

 

What have you read recently you’d recommend?

A new challenge: Les Mis en francais

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

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?

 

Do you stick with unlikable characters?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

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?!

 

How do you feel about unlikable characters?

Books I’m reading — and tossing!

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Loved this one!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

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

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

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

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

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

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

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

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

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

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

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

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

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

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

 

Loved this biography of Joni Mitchell

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a fan of fellow Canadian, legendary musician and songwriter Joni Mitchell, it’s a book well worth your time.

You know how everyone has a song, or an album that indelibly marks a moment in your life and every time you hear it, there you are — catapulted back to being six or 18 or 27 or 43.

For me, living alone in a studio apartment at the back of an alley in a lousy Toronto neighborhood — all I could afford — it was Hejira, Mitchell’s album from 1976.

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.

Here’s the first verse of Refuge of the Roads. (Now, after reading this book, Reckless Daughter, by David Yaffe, I know she’s referring to a Buddhist monk.)

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.

The best day of the year

By Caitlin Kelly

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.

 

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

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!

My recent reading — and yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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?