Book of the Month: Big Magic

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Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my idols.

I first read Eat Pray Love about six years ago and I remember thinking, Ugh, why do some many people like this book? It is so self-indulgent and overdone and who does this woman think she is? I tossed it aside, thought and talked about it with derision for years. Something about it stayed in my mind though, and a few months ago, I began to think I should reread it. Then, when I lost my baby at the end of the summer, I felt like I needed something to lose myself in. I couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything, couldn’t seem to focus on a task or a book or a project, so I decided to try out audiobooks. (I had always thought of them with derision, too, like, Audiobooks aren’t really reading! Why have I spent so much of my time being so derisive?! What a waste!) I scrolled through the available books in the library’s digital catalogue and there it was, on the first page: Eat Pray Love. Like it was waiting for me. It was a sign. So I downloaded it. I lay there in the dark, listening to Liz Gilbert’s voice, and it felt, somehow, like she knew me. Like she had seen into the deepest parts of my soul, felt what I felt, and wrote it down on paper. I lapped up every word like a woman who has been deprived of water. At one point, as I lay listening one night and Bryan puttered around our room, he went still, listening too. Then he said, wryly, “Oh no, I don’t see why you relate to this woman at all.” 

After that, I completely revised my entire opinion of Eat Pray Love and Liz Gilbert herself.

When I heard that she had a new book out on the subject of creativity, I was intrigued. Being a writer, creativity has always fascinated me. Not just how to get more of it, but simply how it works. Why do we have it? What does it all mean? I knew that Liz Gilbert was going to have some interesting thoughts on the matter.

Boy, does she ever.

My favorite one is this: ideas are sentient little beings running around, looking for the perfect person to bring them into corporeal being. Inspiration may visit you, thinking you are the artist for them, only to be rebuffed in some way: maybe you think the idea is dumb, or you aren’t the right person for it. Inspiration may visit you, and then realize that you aren’t ready for it, or aren’t serious about it, and so it leaves you. And sometimes it inspiration visits you, and you are ready for each other, and it is a wonderful relationship that results in art.

I love this idea. I love the idea that we are receptacles for inspiration, that we are not wholly responsible for generating our art, that part of being an artist is communing with some otherworldly muse that bestows its gifts upon you, rather than dredging all your ideas up from the centre of your cells, which, after all, have to be a kind of finite supply.

Her book is full of anecdotes (the Ann Patchett one will blow your mind, seriously) and quotes and thoughts on how to live a more creative life but it is mostly this: permission to just be an artist. To just make whatever the hell you want to make, despite the fear, despite the critics, despite the outmoded and dangerous idea of the Tormented Artist. To accept the gifts that your muse is dying to give you. To live the creative life that you have always dreamed of. It is optimistic but not saccharine. It comes from a playful and light-hearted view of creativity (which is not to say that all created things should be light-hearted and playful, but that the process of making them should be enjoyable, rather than painful). There is a kind of wonderful mysticism in her ideas about creativity as well that I find glorious and inspirational.

If you are a creative person (and I truly believe that every single one of us is, in some way, a creative person) then I think you will find that many aspects of Big Magic ring true for you. Here are a few great ones for you to nibble on for now:

What is creative living? Any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.

Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet; if you don’t give it a job to do, it will find a job to do – and you might not like the job it invents.

Your ego is a wonderful servant but a terrible master – because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward. Always remember this: you are not only an ego; you are also a soul.

Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome. And fear hates uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.

And there are about ten thousand more where that came from.

 

Book of the Month: Big Magic

Book of the Month: If You Find This Letter

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Wow, how is it already the middle of September? Time is sure flying.

Anyway, here is my book of the month for August, just a few days late (ha).

I stumbled upon If You Find This Letter by Hannah Brencher mostly by accident. I had heard her mentioned peripherally a few times, and I had watched her TED talk several months ago, while running on the treadmill at my gym. But as soon as I read what her book was about, what her organization does, I was hooked. I needed to know more.

Her book does not disappoint. It is a lovingly written portrayal of how she came to establish The World Needs More Love Letters. She talks frankly about the darkness that led her there, and her writing is so beautiful, so honest, so hopeful, I could not put it down. I wanted to be reading it every moment. Her story is inspiring and accessible, and soon, I found myself writing and leaving love letters of my own. It was like I couldn’t help it; I needed to be part of what she had started.

Honestly? This book changed my perspective on the world. It changed how I think about how I interact with the world. It changed how I think about my place in the world. It made me realize that it is not about me. I do not think that you could possibly ask for more from a book than to change your entire world view, do you?

(Psst, find the rest of my book recommendations here.)

Book of the Month: If You Find This Letter

Book of the Month: How to Grow Up

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Michelle Tea is like the no-bullshit older sister I never had, telling me the straight facts about life, pulling no punches, but with a soft hopefulness that makes it all easier to bear. This is why I love her.

I came across Michelle the first time almost two years ago on xojane.com, where she was writing about the process of becoming pregnant through fertility treatments. This immediately became my favorite series to read, and I would check back obsessively for new instalments. It was not a fun or easy process for her and her partner, Dashiell, and I appreciated how honest and raw she was about the whole experience. When I found out that she had a new book coming out, I was over the moon. On our recent trip to Vancouver, I took it with me, and savored the essays contained therein over several days. It is one of those books that you want to rip through as fast as you can because it is so amazing, but you also want to take as long as possible with, lingering over lovely sentences and chunks of jaded, shining wisdom.

Tea never shies away from the gritty truths of her life; she never glosses over her problems with addiction, or the less than adult decisions she has made. Her essays shine with honesty and openness, and I think that is why I gobbled them up so voraciously. From examinations of how her propensity for strange fashion affected her childhood to ruminations on why she lived, by choice, in actual squalor for some eight years of her life, Michelle Tea’s words are heartfelt and often very funny as she takes us through the many different places she has found herself in on her journey to adulthood.

That journey to adulthood is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. It has been on my mind a lot for a long time, actually. Though I am 26 years old (certainly not a geezer, but far from my bright-eyed, naive teenage self), I hardly ever feel like an adult. I feel like a child impersonating an adult. I bump up against struggles pretty much on a daily basis that force me to define how I am going to live my life, what kind of adult I am going to be, and the growing pains are sometimes pretty hard to bear. While reading How to Grow Up, I found myself writing down whole paragraphs as inspiration, so many rang so true for me. Despite the fact that our lives have been very different, I still found myself nodding my head in agreement on every page. Through her own experience, Michelle Tea has managed to hit on the fundamental aspects of our humanity.

And she’s just a damn entertaining writer.

Highly recommend. One of my favorites from this year, for sure.

(PS. Find the rest of my book recommendations here.)

 

Book of the Month: How to Grow Up

Book of the Month: A Book of Migrations

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June’s book of the month selection is something a little bit different.

It is non-fiction. It is travel. But it is a meandering, in-depth sort of travelogue, a scouring of the history, culture, and collective consciousness of a country that managed to capture my own soul: Ireland.

Rebecca Solnit traveled around the country on foot in the early half of the 90s, ruminating on what makes Ireland so Irish. She covers a number of subjects, including ancient history, recent history, many public figures, and the roots of Irish restlessness, from their propensity for bird imagery to the necessity of mass emigration.

Solnit’s prose is not easy, but it is beautiful. She creates shockingly gorgeous sentences that probe to the depths of the matter, and are always concise, yet somehow view the issue from a slightly sidewise angle. I loved the way she made me think so differently about a place that I thought I knew a lot about. She weaves a few stories of her own experiences in the country amidst the other stuff, but those stories really just act as jumping off points for bigger things.

By the end of it, I felt like I understood Ireland a little better, as well as an aspect of myself that I hadn’t known was unknown. Not your average travel book, and definitely worth a look if you like a long, slow, savory reading experience.

What did you read this month? What was your favorite? Least favorite? 

(My least favorite was definitely Beautiful Disaster by Jamie Maguire. We have to stop perpetuating this ridiculous notion that possessive, violent men are sexy. Shudder.)

(Psst! Find the rest of my book of the month recommendations here.)

Book of the Month: A Book of Migrations

Book of the Month – Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

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Last year, I read a book called Difficult Men, which was all about the men (sigh, because it’s always men) behind some of the best TV shows, the ones that brought on a new wave of television (ex. The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men). This book talked about The Wire and its creator, David Simon, extensively. In the midst of that discussion, a book Simon wrote, entitled Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, was mentioned. It sounded interesting, so I added it to my list of future reads.

Well.

This book is like nothing I have read before. The premise is this: In the late 1980s, David Simon, a reporter, gained no-holds-barred access to the Baltimore homicide squad for a full year. He followed them around on their cases, hung out with them, got into their brains, and then he wrote this book.

It is captivating, on so many levels. It is a fascinating look at the city of Baltimore, a place that has long been besieged by violent crime (it still is). It is an illuminating examination of the police force and how it functions, both as an independent entity and within the city of Baltimore. It is a searing and heartfelt portrayal of the men (because it is almost entirely men) who dealt, on a daily basis, with the most brutal atrocities that human beings can commit against one another. Not only how they dealt with the violence on a professional level, but, more importantly, and more interestingly, on a personal level.

Simon really gets under these guys’s skin. He gets into their heads. He understands them and the system that they work in in a way that is probably completely unprecedented. I was often appalled reading this book, many times disgusted and disgruntled and disillusioned. But I couldn’t put it down. (It is the reason I have started bringing a book to the gym, so I can read while I ride the stationary bike.) When it was over, I missed those detectives with a fierceness that surprised me.

I haven’t read very many books like this. It is, on occasion, very dense. But it is an extremely worthwhile read, whether you like a good murder mystery, or whether you are interested in psychology, or whether you’d just like some insight into police work in the 1980s. Do be warned, though: Simon does not pull punches when it comes to the gruesome and brutal nature of what the cops encounter. I can’t recommend this book enough, and I can’t wait to get my hands on his other book, which, ironically and, perhaps, inevitably, is about the year he spent on the other side of the law, getting in good with Baltimore’s drug culture.

Find other books I have recommended here

Book of the Month – Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

Book of the Month: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

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I chose this book entirely by accident: I needed something to read on the plane home from Vegas, and this was the first e-book available from my library that I vaguely recognized. Boom, done.

And then I read it, and it decimated my world, guys. (In the best way possible.)

Before I Fall is great for a number of reasons.

  1. It follows the Groundhog’s Day formula without feeling tired or forced. It really works, mostly because no two days feel the same. There is very little non-essential overlap.
  2. The main characters are all complicated, not-entirely-likeable girls. I liked that these girls were allowed to be human beings who were often terrible, but sometimes not, who were regular high school girls who could be wonderful to each other and awful to others, and vice versa, just as easily as breathing. We give a lot of leeway to male anti-heroes but very little to females, which is lame. Unlikeable characters are often the most interesting. I did not like Lindsay at all, but she was certainly the member of the gang who intrigued me the most.
  3. The main characters are all best friends, and the story is about their friendship more than anything, a friendship which is real and dynamic and layered.
  4. The pain of reading it, knowing that there is no way out. That, no matter how many times she Groundhog Days it up, there is no real waking up for Sam. It lends the story an emotional depth that resonated strongly with me.
  5. Sam goes through a strong, believable character arc is the story progresses, going from spoiled, bratty, awfulness to someone with a little bit more awareness and compassion for the people around her. She is certainly no saint by the time the story winds down, but she is markedly different than when we began. It is quite rewarding.

This is quality fiction, y’all. It baffles me how people continue to discount young adult fiction. I find most of the stories I love the most are young adult.

This is where it’s at. 

 

Book of the Month: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book of the Month: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is a mystery. Not only is it a whodunnit, but it’s a whodunnit to who?

What we know: At a school trivia night, someone is killed. Who and why are slowly revealed to us throughout the course of the book.

Big Little Lies is a pretty simple book on the surface, but it has many layers that make it a rich and rewarding reading experience. There are three main characters: Jane, a 24-year-old single mother of a kindergartener who may or may not be brutally bullying another child, has just moved to the area and harbors a secret that has been eating away at her for years; Celeste, who has a picture perfect life on the outside but conceals her own dark secrets; and Madeline, a feisty, vivacious woman with a penchant for drama that is coming back to bite her in the ass with her own teenage daughter.

As we wend our way through the intersecting lives of these three women, we touch on many secrets: What is happening in Celeste’s house? What happened to Jane that makes her believe that Ziggy might be capable of what he has been accused? What is going on with Madeline’s daughter? But the biggest secret of all, of course, is who died, and why. Moriarty builds the tension exquisitely. Each small secret and accompanying lie adds another twist to the screw, another torque to amp up the stakes, so that by the time all is revealed, it is a delicious, cathartic experience. An exhalation, a sigh of satisfaction, that says, “ahhhh..finally….”

Ultimately, Big Little Lies is about more than a murder and distorted elementary school politics, though those are, of course, fascinating in and of themselves. Ultimately, Big Little Lies is about the lies that we all tell to make it through our lives, and how those lies can either save us … or kill us.

What was your favorite book in March?

Book of the Month: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Book of the Month – The Raven Cycle Series

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Surprise, surprise, more young adult fare!

I picked up the first book in this series, The Raven Boys, on a whim. It was on the Staff Recommended shelf at the library, and I had a vague memory of reading somewhere that Maggie Stiefvater was a highly accomplished writer. So I thought, What the hell, and gave it a shot. Little did I know that it would lead down a dark path! The second I finished the first book, I put holds on the second and third, and waited with zero patience for them to arrive. (As always seems to be the case, the third one came in first. I went to the library three times in two days just to get my fix of Blue, Gansey, and the rest.)

Here is the premise: Blue comes from a big, cosy, enmeshed family of psychics, but she herself is not psychic. She is more like an amplifier; when she is around, everyone else’s supernatural powers are stronger. Every year, on St Mark’s Eve, she accompanies her mother to a particular church, where the spirits of those who are going to die in the next twelve months make themselves known. Blue never sees anything. Except, this year, she does. And his name is Gansey, and he is one of the supremely privileged boys who attends Aglionby Academy. He also happens to be on a years-long search for Glendower, an ages old Welsh king whom he believes is slumbering somewhere, waiting for the right person to come along and wake him up. Oh, and did I mention that every psychic Blue has ever encountered has told her that if she kisses her true love, he will die? So Blue is sucked into the magical, tortured, privileged lives of Gansey and his friends, Ronan, Noah, and Adam.

On the surface, the premise sounds ridiculous. I was not immediately sold on it. But whoever it was that put it into my brain that Stiefvater is a consummate storyteller, pat yourself on the back, because oh. my. God.

I love paranormal young adult fare. It is my bread and butter. But I got sucked into Henrietta, Virginia, and the world of Blue and her raven boys in a way that I haven’t since Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. I tore through those pages as fast as I could possibly go. I thought about them before I went to bed and immediately reached for my book upon waking.

And when I got to the end of the third one, I wanted to throw my book across the room, because it’s not a trilogy, it’s a fourlogy, and the fourth book doesn’t come out until September. 

This sent me into paroxysms of fangirl pain. My fourteen year old sister, who is pretty much the only other person on the face of the earth that I know of who gets as into fictional things as I do, received a very long post on her Facebook page about how demolished I felt that I would not get to know what happened to these people that I had come to care about so deeply until September. I have had a book hangover ever since. It took me three or four days to settle into another book at all, and even now, I am still thinking about The Raven Cycle.

It isn’t just a paranormal romance. There are so many layers to this book. There’s Welsh folklore and the verdant soil of divided classes (Adam Parrish, one of Gansey’s best friends, comes from a trailer park and works three jobs to make his way through Aglionby Academy); domestic abuse and forbidden romance; confused sexuality, feeling like an outsider in your own family, and what happens when you discover that your entire world is, quite literally, a dream.

Go. Read these books. I’ll wait here. Then we can talk for hours about all the little things we love and hate about it.

What are you waiting for?

PS. My favorite character is, of course, Ronan Lynch, the resident psychopath with a core of deep pain and love. Anyone who knows me well will have already guessed this. What can I say? I have a type.

PPS. My favorite book so far is the second one, because, surprise, it is Ronan-centric.

Book of the Month – The Raven Cycle Series

Book of the Month – Locke & Key

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Locke & Key is another incredible graphic novel series that is rivalling my deep, passionate love for the Saga series.

Locke & Key is dark with a capital D. The whole inciting incident for the story is the brutal murder of Rendell Locke, and the lucky, determined survival of his three children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, and his wife, Nina. After his death, the remaining family members move across the country to Keyhouse, where Rendell grew up, and that is where the adventure really begins. As Bode, the youngest, begins to discover, Keyhouse is not really a normal house. It derives its name from the fact that there are an unknown number of keys floating around that do random, magical things; for example, opening a door that turns you into a ghost when you walk through it.

As the Lockes begin to adjust to their new life, it becomes increasingly clear that things are never going to be the same again, and that “normal” is a word that no longer applies to them. A dangerous person from Rendell’s past is headed straight for them, on a deadly mission, and there will be hell to pay.

What I love the most about these books is that they throw you right into the middle of the story. Though Rendell’s murder is the inciting incident, it is certainly not where the story starts, and Joe Hill does an incredible job of revealing juuuuust enough information to keep you hooked without blowing the whole thing wide open. It is a complex, convoluted, intense plot that never stops. It is one of the most breakneck stories I have ever read, and I am almost literally breathless at the end of each instalment.

Volume 3 cannot come fast enough from the library for me!

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Have you read Locke and Key? If so, what are your thoughts? If not, what is your favorite graphic novel?

Book of the Month – Locke & Key

Book of the Month – Double Header

I have always been a big fan of young adult novels. I don’t believe that the genre gets enough credit for how many genuine, heartfelt, incredibly original stories it produces. In December, I read two of the best young adult novels I have ever read. Which is saying a lot. Even if young adult books aren’t really your thing, I strongly encourage you to give these two a chance.

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I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This novel centres around twins Noah and Jude, who lost their mother at the age of 14 and whose relationship has since shattered. At 16, they are barely speaking to one another. Until a mystery at the centre of their lives begins to unravel.

The prose and the format are what really set this book apart. It was some of the most original prose I have ever encountered, and I found myself re-reading sentences again and again because they were so beautiful, and structured in such a unique way. As well, it shifts between the two perspectives of Noah and Jude, which is a familiar enough narrative device. However, in Noah’s perspective, we are with the twins when they are 14, and in Jude’s perspective, we are with them at the age of 16. Having these two timelines was such an interesting and engaging way to weave the narrative together, and was one of the reasons that I so enjoyed the novel. Jandy Nelson does such a great job with the split perspective as well. I have found that a lot of novels that attempt to use this device get bogged down by an inability to distinguish between the two voices (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but that is never a problem in I’ll Give You the Sun. Noah and Jude each have a unique way of looking at the world and expressing themselves, and that makes the whole story even more powerful.

When I was done, I felt like I had been enfolded by the story, mushed up, and been reborn again. I had a book hangover for days. My first book hangover in a long while.

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cadence Sinclair Eastman has been going to her family’s island off of Martha’s Vineyard every summer for her whole life. The Sinclairs are wealthy, beautiful, and damaged, and now, they are all harboring a secret. Something happened two years ago, the summer that Cadence was 15, and Cadence has no idea what it was. All she knows is that she woke up half-naked on the beach, and sustained injuries that have haunted her for two years. No one else is talking. What happened? How will Cadence figure it out?

This book is a mystery delivered in sparse and lovely prose. It’s a great mystery, too. I had actually guessed what had really happened early on in the book, but as I continued reading, I began doubting my conclusion so much that I changed my mind more than three times. I was so off-balance and engaged, I sped through the book in about one day. It put me in mind of summers spent at our own family cabin with my own cousins, and the versions of ourselves that have disappeared. It was nostalgic and lovely and really really painful.

 

All in all, these were two of the best books that I read this year. What about you guys?

Book of the Month – Double Header