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?

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?!)

 

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?

Two great books I just finished reading — and you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I very rarely read fiction, so it was a bit of luck that I recently found — in, of all places, on the book/magazine recycling shelf near our apartment building’s laundry room — two terrific novels.

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“Cutting For Stone” is by physician Abraham Verghese, and I’d read the rapturous reviews and thought, not for me. It’s a long, winding tale of twin brothers born in Ethiopia and their lives. Both become doctors. I might never have bought this book, his first novel, or borrowed it from the library, but there it was — free for the taking.

I found many elements of the book compelling. He really knows, (and researched, as he included voluminous notes at the back), Ethiopia and its history and geography, so I felt literally transported. I’ve never been there and might never get there, so I enjoyed that.

His characters were clear, strong, sympathetic. He describes many medical situations in a way no one but a doctor could write so persuasively; I loved his insider story of his character’s training in a poor Bronx hospital, especially.

And I loved the cover image: mysterious, enticing, colorful.

The other book was “Tell the Wolves I’m Home”, by Carol Rifka Brunt.

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I also loved its cover — that exotic teapot is important to the plot.

This one resonated for me on so many levels!

It’s told through the eyes of a 13 year-old girl and unravels a mystery about her beloved uncle who has recently died. I won’t give it away, but it’s a terrific read. She, like me, lives in a town in Westchester County, just north of New York City, so all the references registered for me as deeply familiar.

I also covered the AIDS crisis, as a newspaper reporter, as it unfolded in the mid 1980s in North America — the book is set in that time period and addresses that issue, and powerfully brings back what it felt like, then, to know people dying of it and how the world was reacting to them then.

The first book is about two brothers, once close, who become estranged for years; the second book is about two estranged sisters who move from hostility back to closeness.

(I was raised an only child so have no daily notion of what it’s like to live with siblings. One of books’ many gifts is bringing us into worlds we will never experience ourselves.)

I highly recommend both.

(Whoever is leaving those books downstairs absolutely shares my taste — I’ve also found and read The Dive From Clausen’s Pier and One Day, both of which I also really enjoyed. It feels like Christmas on that shelf!)

This New York Times review of the TDFCP praises what I also found extremely well-drawn — what it feels like to arrive in New York City knowing not a soul and re-inventing yourself.

I don’t read science fiction, romance, chick lit, horror or YA, but…

What have you read recently I should reach for next?

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Tossing Old Books And Looking For Something New To Read

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Love 'em --- who can ever have enough? Image via Wikipedia

It feels good to cull the herd once in a while.

Last weekend I managed to fill three cardboard boxes with outgoing books — soft covers, coffee table books, (we don’t even have a coffee table), books by friends and acquaintances and review copies Jose and I have snagged, free, over the years from the Niagara of copies that pours into every newsroom.

I’ll take them into Manhattan to The Strand, a legendary store that I hope will buy them. If get $100 for them all, I’ll be happy.

Then I can buy some new ones!

I sorted the remaining books into sections: Canadian history and politics, American history and politics, French history and politics, art, music, antiques, auction catalogs, photography, business, design, dictionaries, (of economics, foreign terms, French, Spanish), cookbooks, travel, and a dozen essentials — books on how to sell and promote my own books.

I lined up, on one shelf, the 20 or so books that aren’t reference (or just too heavy to delve into for fun) as a reminder to actually, you know, read them. I tend to return to non-fiction, memoir, essays and history. I rarely find fiction I enjoy. 

I don’t read sci-fi, romance, chick lit or anything about vampires or werewolves. Some of my favorite writers include Grahame Greene, Thomas Hardy, Gerald Durrell, Amy Bloom, Alexandra Fuller, Peter Godwin, Balzac, Jan Morris. Yes, they’re almost all British men. Not sure why.

One of my recent favorites was this delightful, quirky tale by a woman from St. John’s Newfoundland, “Come, Thou Tortoise” which I found — of course! — in the bus station bookshop in Vancouver, B.C.

My second-favorite of recent years was The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, by David Mitchell. Oh, what a beautiful, moody book! As a huge fan of ukiyo e Japanese woodcuts, reading this book, set in 18th century Japan, was like sliding into a delicious fever dream.

And this, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a French book I adored; it’s also now out as a film, “The Hedgehog.” It tells the story of the secret life of a Paris concierge.

I liked Cat’s Eye, by fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood; she became my first celebrity interview when I was editor of my high school newspaper. Since she also attended my high school, she agreed to the interview. I liked Cat’s Eye a lot because it reminded me so powerfully of my hometown, Toronto.

In The Skin of A Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a gorgeous little thing, also set in Toronto. I recently read Divisadero, also by him. I love his poetic style.

So my favorite authors seem to be Canadian, a New Zealander, British and French. I need to find a few American writers! (I do like Richard Ford and Richard Russo and lovelovelove John Cheever.)

I’d love to hear some of your recommendations!

What are the best three books you’ve read, and why?