30×30 direct watercolour challenge – week two

I’ve been participating in Marc Taro Holmes’ 30×30 direct watercolour challenge. This a round-up of the paintings I did for days 8-14 (you can see 1-7 here).

This week involved a lot of quick and simple paintings. You can see them and, where applicable, the reference photos on Instagram.

I should note that I have no training in watercolours. I’m using this challenge as a means of learning, practising, and playing with watercolours.

8. Feather

This painting ended up being a little overworked because I still wasn’t practiced with determining when the painting is the right level of wet/dry for what you need (I’m still not!). But, I had fun trying and the colour mixing was just about perfect, thanks to Payne’s Grey (a personal favourite).

9. Flowers

I just needed a day of playing with all the beautiful colours in my palette and doing something easy. Bonus gold dots!

10. Somewhat abstract sunsets, 2 versions

I wanted to play with colour fields again. I was also starting to think about ideas for an upcoming beginner rug hooking class with Fern School of Craft (I won’t be using these as they’re bigger and more complex than I wanted).

11. A continuation of the abstract sunsets, 3 versions

More playing with sunsets and colour. I think that this one would make a cool quilt.

12. Aster and forest litter (and close-ups)

I’m in love with the aster, not so much the forest litter painting. But, asters are one of my all time favourite flowers and I love the picture this one was based on.

13. Lemon plants

I started some lemon plants last year, and they’re still alive! On this day, I just felt like doing something simple and cheerful.

14. Rocky edge of Lake Louise, AB, 2 versions plus a practice page

Oh the irony. My practice piece is where I did my favourite rocks. I don’t dislike my final piece, but those rocks were tough. I’m still struggling with finding the perfect wet/dry points wen painting and I don’t know if that’s because I’m impatient/distracted or because it’s dry where I live or because this paper isn’t ideal. But, I still enjoyed the efforts and the turquoise water (Wanderlust Watercolour’s turquoise was perfect – no colour mixing required).

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I was struggling for a few days, which is why I allowed myself to do some really basic, quick and messy abstract sunset pictures. I’m really bad about sticking to challenges and decided to doing something easy was better than quitting. And, I’m glad I gave myself this freedom because this marks the halfway point and I still have some great ideas and I still want to see this challenge through tot he end.

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30×30 direct watercolour challenge – week one

I’ve been participating in Marc Taro Holmes’ 30×30 direct watercolour challenge. This a round-up of the paintings I did in the first seven days.

I started with a few pictures based on or inspired by pictures from my family’s cottage, but I also did a number of abstract style paintings. I’ve had a several days where I’ve completed more than one painting, so there’s more than 7. You can see them and, where applicable, the reference photos on Instagram.

I should note that I have no training in watercolours. So, while some of the paintings are surprisingly good (to me, anyway), I’m using this challenge as a means of learning, practising, and playing with watercolours.

1. The tail end of a sunset in the winter

This challenge started on a high note. While not perfect, I’m really pleased with this painting.

2. The silhouette of grasses with the early evening sky as a backdrop

To be honest, I just wanted to try the clouds I did in the first painting again.

3. The reef at the beach on an overcast day

So far, this is my favourite painting. I love it, love it, love it. I’m so proud of this painting. It’s a sandbar (bottom) and reef (which partially emerges when the tide is low).

4. (a) Pyramids (abstract) and (b) river running through a forest (abstract)

The pyramid started as a completely different idea, but a mistake ruined that plan. I happened to be watching a The Nature of Things episode about pyramids (video), so I changed my plans. The second painting was just an excuse to play with colours and salt (that’s how you get that cool effect).

5. Seaweed and stone

All those little pebbles? They took more patience than I had that day. But, I’m really glad that I persevered because the final piece is exactly what I’d expect to find in between the sandbars at my family’s cottage.

6. Water and sandbar (abstract)Water and sandbar (abstract)

I did this painting as an exercise in colour blocking after watching a video about the colour field art technique by ARTiculations (video).

7. Tulips

Tulips. Bright yellow, delightful tulips. This painting was a bit of a fail (it’s fine, but not what I was hoping for), but it’s still nice. It’s also the first of my paintings done with the Wanderlust Watercolour mixables palette, which has become my primary paints for this challenge.

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I’ve been enjoying the challenge, especially because I allowed myself a lot of freedom with regards to subjects, techniques, and sharing paintings that aren’t “perfect” (I struggle with accepting imperfect art, which is a big part of why I quite making art for a very long time ).

Book review – Solitude by Michael Harris

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I really wanted to love this book, but, as interesting as the many topics Harris covered were, I felt that the book veered into crotchety, distracted old folk territory.

Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World starts with a good overview of what solitude is (not loneliness, for the record) and why it’s important to have some time to ourselves on occasion (including time away from our smartphones). Harris discusses the benefits of solitude in the context of children (it helps them develop self-governing skills), thinkers (having time to consider your ideas before sharing them), and the general public (consolidating thoughts may help us to find a sense of meaning and happiness in our lives).

“… because whoever can do nothing, letting his thoughts go where they may, must be at peace with himself.”

I didn’t agree with everything he said. For example, he seemed fairly convinced that only miserable artists will succeed, which is utter nonsense. While I understand that dissatisfaction can lead to creativity through what Harris calls attempts to “build a bridge”, I don’t think that you have to be miserable to be an artist, successful or not. I think that happiness can foster creativity. Perhaps being content with how things are can be a road block – if you don’t see a need for change or a need to add another voice, then you may not be inclined to create something. But, the idea that an artist needs to be dissatisfied to be successful seems a bit black and white. In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert is firmly against the trope of the tragic artist. She notes that it is possible to enjoy making art and that we shouldn’t fetishsize suffering or mental health issues. And, I agree with her.

But, back to Harris’ thoughts on solitude. He also discusses the fact that we should all be able and comfortable with making our own decisions, which can be hard when we’re constantly plugged into the rest of the world (whether that being through social engagement or social media). One of his points struck a chord for me: “… then the choices we make online about what books to read, what songs to listen to, what movies to watch become less independent and more manipulated.” This happened to me over the past two years with regards to books. I went from “oh, hey, that sounds like a good recommendation. I think I’ll read that” to “she says it’s good, so I must read it.” That’s why so many of the books that were on my unread shelf at the end of last year were so easy to get rid of – they were good books with great reviews, but I was only going to read them because they were good books, with great reviews.

Unfortunately, it’s at about this point in the book when I felt that things were starting to go sideways. It felt like a lot of the discussion in the latter half of his book was really just him complaining about cultural evolution. Things have changed, technology has been developed, some innovations have affected our privacy and how we connect. Some of this is good, and some of it is bad, but I felt like Harris was cherry-picking examples to whine about kids these days. For example, he had a long discussion about people who’ve never written a snail-mail letter or used a typewriter before, but completely neglected to look at the people who are embracing such things (not just in terms of the hipster culture, but also in the context of simple living).

Later in the book, Harris started to talk about our failing bodies and death. This where I got lost. I couldn’t figure out what any of this discussion had to do with solitude. It was an interesting discussion about mortality and technology, but I couldn’t find the connection to solitude.

In the end, Harris did swing back to the topic of solitude, but I was a bit disappointed in some of the things he said. It felt like he was imposing his own feelings or assumptions on how we should seek and experience solitude. For example, he discussed the balance between being alone (solitude) and being with others (real or virtual). Overall, the discussion was interesting, but it felt like he assumed that there was a set ratio: you need 1 hour of solitude for every 3 hours you spend with others. But, that’s not true. The kind of company you keep (strangers, friends, friends you can be “alone” with) will affect how much (if any) alone time is needed afterwards. So will the kind of person you are – an extrovert will need (and want) far less solitude than an introvert.

I was also disappointed when he suggested that there was a right way to seek solitude. He used Thoreau and the unabomber as examples, which suggests that if you do it wrong, you’re going to become a domestic terrorist, which is silly and alarmist. There are many ways to be alone, and there are many reasons to be alone. Both of these men chose solitude for different reasons. How the unabomber found his solitude may have exacerbated he’s isolation and extreme thoughts, but it didn’t necessarily result in his actions. In other words, running off into the woods alone isn’t necessarily going to turn someone into murderer.

Overall, I found the book to be fairly interesting (I even wrote enthusiastically about the idea of “rediscovering” ourselves a few months ago), but I did feel that it suffered from a lot of scope-creep (turning off into topics that were only loosely related). It’s worth reading the first half, but it’s certainly not Harris’ best book.

Book review – Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki

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I’ve heard a lot of really good things about this book and it’s positive take on minimalism, so I was really shocked and disappointed by some of the assumptions the Sasaki made. While I believe that his intentions were good and that he did not mean to be exclusive in his assumptions, this book reeks of the his privilege and ignorance. I tried to take everything with a grain of salt and I tried to be open minded (he’s Japanese, so maybe something was lost in translation?), but I just can’t get over some of the nonsense in this book.

Sasaki does have some good ideas and suggestions regarding minimalism in general. I didn’t feel that it was particularly unique or inspirational, but he laid out a good foundation for minimalism and why it’s worth considering. Aside from a few minor comments that were stereotypical (ex: women loving clothes/dresses), I didn’t start finding problematic statements and ideas until Sasaki started talking about how to be a minimalist (about a quarter of the way through the book). At that point, he almost immediately showed his privilege by implying that we all have jobs and housing situations that we love (or loved) at some point. To me, this immediately disregarded anyone with limited options, such as the huge number of people/families who are living in low-income situations or have limited job oppotunities.

Sadly, many of the comments/ideas I highlighted throughout the book oozed with the same privilege. Based on his book, I suspect he knows little or nothing about: having to consider  the needs of the whole household (whether that be partners and/or children), having limited money or resources, having limited choices for jobs or where you live, etc.

He spoke about minimalism like it was so easy and I felt like he was suggesting that it was ridiculous that we weren’t all living at the same level of minimalism as he is (he’s what many would consider to be an extreme minimalist). He claimed that there was no right way to do things and he claimed that that was OK, but the words he used and the suggestions he made in most of the book implied that we should all just get rid of everything, even some (if not all) of the things that bring us joy.

For me, this book was completely out of touch and it framed a way of living that’s not only difficult to achieve (even for someone like myself – childless, good job, low expenses, etc.), but that also sounds horribly stark.

I appreciated some of the ideas Sasaki had, but I hated this book. If you’re interested in minimalism but not interested in being “extreme,” then don’t read this. It will just make you feel bad about your efforts or feel like the idea is unattainable. There are so many other books out there that are better: more inclusive, more inspirational, less judgy, etc. There are also a lot of online resources (YouTubers, etc.) that cover of range of realistic situations and efforts to be more minimalist. Here’s a list of some of my favourites books and resources that are about or that support minimalism or simple living:

One final thought: minimalism or simple living doesn’t have to be a life with nothing but the necessities. You’re allowed to have art, colour, an extra mug (or 3), a box of letters, hobby supplies, books, etc. Just don’t have more than what *you* need to function and be happy. Keep the things that bring you joy, as Marie Kondo would suggest, and stop worrying about keeping up with the neighbours, whether they have all the best consumer items or they are extreme minimalist. Only you can know where your happy spot is.

Book review – Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner

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As noted on the author’s website, Chasing Slow is about “slowing down, about stripping the excess, about refusing to amass in a world that shouts for more”. In other words, it’s about simplifying your life and minimizing your possessions. What makes it stand apart from books like The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is that it’s not strictly a how-to book. It’s full of advice, but it’s also full of anecdotes about the author’s path to simplicity, the good and the bad.

I enjoyed the book and got a lot of good advice from it. It’s a good, solid read and I think that a lot of people would really enjoy it. Some of the advice she gives is really thoughtful and I found her book to fairly inclusive (for example, she doesn’t preach getting rid of everything and seems to have a fairly realistic view of simplicity and minimalism).

The three main things that I got from the book are:

1. Our default equation is to add more when we feel less

I think this is pretty common knowledge: we buy things to feel better about ourselves, we strive for bigger homes, we work to get larger salaries, etc. But, as Loechner notes, this equation wrong. Adding more things to our lives won’t make us happier, except maybe for that brief moment when we make the purchase (obviously, there are exceptions: if you are poor, a larger income will make you happier; if you have two jobs and three kids, kitchen tools that make meal prep faster will free up more time; etc.).

But, we’ve been led to believe that we should buy more to be more. For many of us, that simply means having more things around, but still being at the same base level of happiness or contentment. Or, being worse off because we spend all our time maintaining all those things or working to afford the space to house all those things.

One of the things Loachner said in her book that struck a chord with me was that we should remove the weight from your wings so we can fly. I’ve seen this or similar ideas in other books, but it felt particularly relevant while reading her book. The idea is that we all have capacity to fly, but it’s easier to do so if we aren’t carrying a load, whether that be stuff, emotional baggage, or the social rules we use to lock ourselves into to be versions of ourselves that we think society will approve of.

2. Things should add value, meaning or purpose

What Loechner said was this: “If it does not add value, it does not add much. If it does not add meaning, it does not add much. If it does not add purpose, it does not add much.”

This is very much in line with Marie Kondo’s philosophy of only keeping things that bring you joy (or have a purpose). And, I think that it’s a good philosophy to follow. It doesn’t mean that you can only have things that add value, meaning, or purpose. It simply means that anything else won’t add much.

And, of course, how “value”, “meaning” and “purpose” are defined will depend on you. Does “value” mean increasing the value of your house, or providing you with a service that is valuable to you? Does “meaning” need to be a family heirloom, or can it be a special souvenir or photo from a vacation?

3. Life lessons in frugality

At the end of the book, Loechner shares several life lessons. The list include basics like “it’s not a sale if you don’t need it” or “never buy anything dry clean only.” It also includes ones that I don’t see that often, like:

  • You can save time or you can save money – shopping universally saves neither
  • Reduce, reuse, or just plain go without (the less you have to dust, the less you have to dust)
  • Don’t be afraid of that thrift store musk (it washes out)

Overall, I found the book had a really good balance between Loechner’s own story and her advice about simplicity and minimalism. I think that a lot of people would find it very inspirational and would feel that they could relate to her story more than I did.

It’s a good book and you should read it if this is a topic you’re interested in.

Isabelle Arsenault – Illustrator

Let’s talk about illustrators. I’m a sucker for art. If I had unlimited funds and my own library, I would buy just about any book ten times over if I loved the new cover design and/or someone filled it with art.

This is why I love picture books. One of my favourite things about my trip to visit the niblings earlier this spring was reading books to the kids at bedtime. They loved it because they got more time with aunty Anne and I loved it because I got more time with the kids … and I got to read a bunch of kids books. One night, my sister-in-law (who is awesome, for the record) sent me down after bedtime reading with a handful of books that she loved because of the art. I was in heaven. They are all delightful in their own unique ways and I made a list of new-to-me kids book authors and illustrators to check out.

Isabelle Arsenault was not one of them, but seeing all that fabulous art made me think about illustrators, and it got me thinking: I review books all the time and I love art, so why don’t I ever talk about books based on their art?

Today, I would like to introduce you to the art of Isabelle Arsenault, an award winning Canadian illustrator based out of Montreal.

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I first discovered her art through House of Anansi Press. I had a coupon from them and was planning on picking up a novel, but ended up picking a “kids” books called Jane, the Fox and Me, written by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I fell in love with the art immediately. I “read” the book twice before actually reading the words because I just loved the art. The story is pretty great, too, but it was the art that I fell in love with.

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From: Jane, the Fox & Me
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From: Jane, the Fox & Me
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From: Jane, the Fox & Me

I love the roughness of the pencil and I loved how she easily transitioned from a rugged, almost sketch-like neutral or grayscale illustrations to beautiful, colour-filled spreads that felt like they could be in a gallery. I know that a lot of people would disregard Arsenault’s style as unfinished, but I think that it’s a triumph because it shows that you only need a pencil to make something beautiful.

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Top: Cloth Lullaby. Bottom: You Belong Here.

I picked up a couple of library books that were also illustrated by Arsenault and found the same gorgeous work. You Belong Here (written by M H Clark) had the same mostly-grayscale motif and was full of beautiful pictures. Cloth Lullaby (written by Amy Novesky) was filled with colour and pushed the boundaries of imagination, which suited the content beautifully because it’s a biography of the artist Louise Bourgeois. I ended up purchasing a copy of the latter because I loved both the biography and the illustrations.

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From: You Belong Here
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From: Cloth Lullaby

There are many other books with Arsenault’s illustrations and you can buy prints of some of her work at Sur Ton Mur, a store in Montreal that celebrates and sells illustrations by several wonderful artists.

Who are your favourite illustrators? I’m always eager to find new artists.

This past weekend …

This past weekend was an odd one, weather-wise. Saturday was gloriously sunny and warm, but Sunday was grey and colder by the hour.

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Not realizing that the weather was going to change so drastically, I decided to do a big spring clean on Saturday. I swept, I washed, I scrubbed, and I stayed inside all day. Then, I checked the weather and lamented about a beautiful day wasted inside.I don’t regret the spring cleaning – my place looks and feels better, plus I accidentally discovered a minor change in furniture placement that made a huge difference in the balance and flow of the whole space. But, I was still a bit sad about missing out on a beautiful day.

Instead of being grumpy about it, I decided to just add a bit of spring to my space. I was going to buy some flowers on Sunday, but when I woke up I decided that it would be more interesting, more economical, and more environmentally friendly to find some interesting branches. We’re not yet in bloom season here, but the wee little buds are starting to burst with leaves and I love greenery just as much as I love flowers. So, armed with a warm jacket and a pair of branch clippers, I went for a short walk to look for interesting branches.

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Before you accuse me of being a monster to damages my neighbours’ bushes, I should mention that I live next to a promenade with an adjacent wooded area. It’s a small wooded area (a couple meters of buffer between the promenade and a road), but it’s full of interesting trees and bushes, including many that flower. As I said, we’re not yet in flowering season, but I’ve been living here long enough to remember the approximate location of my favourite trees. Also, the area surrounding my building’s parking lot is full of neglected lilac bushes – given their neglect, I think they’re fair game, too.

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I was only going to pick a branch or two, but I couldn’t help myself and ended up with several (most of which are flowering). They may not be fancy flowers, they may just be sticks with a bit of green, but it’s still a nice treat. I’ve loved watching the leaves emerge and grow, and, if I’m lucky, they may last long enough for a few blooms. If not, I’ll head out with my clippers again.

As for the spring clean, I don’t regret “wasting” a sunny day on my apartment. To me, it’s like a bit of self-care because I love a clean, fresh home.

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Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

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I’m not entirely sure what made me decide to pick up this book last year. I like to write, but I don’t want to be an author. I guess I was just curious to read the book because I kept coming across references to it. It’s often noted as a book that’s very important for writers and very inspirational.

On one hand, I can see why people find it inspirational, but on the other hand, I feel like I learned more about the author than about being a writer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I’ve been inspired and changed by many books that were, on the whole, just autobiographies and a scattering of tips and life lessons.

The one part of the book that made me sit up and pay attention was her discussion about how perfectionism is like a cramped muscle:

I think that something similar happens to our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds – the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both – to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.

I struggle with perfectionism. You’d never know it to see me or speak to me, but that’s because I tend to hide it well. I also default to “if it can’t be perfect, there’s no point in trying,” so people rarely see my perfectionism in practice. This “go big or go home” attitude is both ridiculous and immensely unfair to myself.

When I read this, I immediately recognized myself and many of my issues with moving forward with art. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I used to aspire to being an artist – studying art, doing art daily, etc. But, I let life get in the way and eventually found that my skills had diminished and I’d lost my path. Being a perfectionist, my reaction to this was to become despondent and to assume that there was no hope. So, I turned to other creative endeavours, especially hobbies that looked easy enough and still allowed some room for creativity. But, I was never satisfied and I could never stop thinking about how I had always wanted to be an artist.

While the book didn’t leave much of an impression on me, this paragraph did because it became the catalyst that started to move me forward. I started to sketch more (now daily, where possible), I started to look for and take art classes, I started to evaluate what I needed (and wasn’t getting) from the art classes I was taking, and I started to remember how great it was to make art. So, I guess the book had it’s intended effect on me. Sure, I’m not planning on quitting and heading to art school, nor am I interested in becoming a professional artist. But, I make art, I aspire to learn more, and I finally feel comfortable calling myself an artist again.

This weekend

It’s gross and snowy right now. But, Saturday was gloriously sunny and spring-like. Even better than that, I spent a bit chunk of the day with one of my all time favourite people (she’s so smart, interesting and lovely, and I’m lucky to have her as a friend).

We started the day at The Duchess, where I had a coconut, orange and coriander danish, which was so good! I didn’t take any pictures because I’m trying to be more present when I’m with friends, which  means leaving my phone in my pocket. But, she gave me a bunch of recommendations for TV shows and such that I should check out. She always has great documentary recommendations, so I’ll be checking these out a.s.a.p.

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I also acquired some homemade goodies she made: relish, strawberry marmalade, pear and rose white tea jelly, and hot chocolate mix. As an added bonus, she said she’d teach me to make preserves this year. My family made preserves when I was growing up and I used to help, but its been a couple decades and I feel intimidated by the idea of doing it on my own, so I’m pleased as punch that she said I could be her assistant.

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We then went for a wander in the neighbourhood, where I did a bit of shopping. Those Smarties are British Smarties, which are a million times more delicious than Canadian Smarties. And, yes, I do use natural deodorants (90% of the time, anyway). I’m still looking for the perfect one, but these two Routine samplers have been great so far.

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When I got home, I did boring chores, spent some time with some art books, and eventually settled in with The Fifth Element, which continues to be one of my favourite movies – the costumes are awesome, there’s lots of action, and the characters all amuse the heck out of me.

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It was a nice weekend and I’m looking forward to when the weather goes back to being spring-like.

Book review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

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“More than thirty years later, the scars still sleep on my wrists.”

I seem to really love fiction relating to art and artists and The Strays, by Emily Bitto, was no exception. I loved the story, I loved the language, and I loved the way art was part of the story.

Synopsis:

On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are attempting to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work with them at their family home. As Lily’s friendship with Eva grows, she becomes infatuated with this makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

Looking back on those years later in life, Lily realises that this utopian circle involved the same themes as Evan Trentham’s art: Faustian bargains and terrible recompense; spectacular fortunes and falls from grace. Yet it was not Evan, nor the other artists he gathered around him, but his own daughters, who paid the debt that was owing.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent. [Source]

Lily, the first-person narrator, is the bored only child of ordinary parents. She’s drawn to Eva and Eva’s family from the start and seems to live very much in their shadow. She allows their lives to happen around her and to her, quietly observing and absorbing everything. But, as the family starts to fall apart, she becomes more entangled and, later in life, she is forced to bare the weight of her actions (or, inactions, as the case may be).

“ ‘An artist is someone who sees the structures of order and recognizes them as arbitrary.’ ”

It’s a fascinating story and it’s told beautifully. I loved reading about the art and about the artists’ perspective on art, the art community of the time, and the need or desire to expand beyond the more conservative art that was accepted and expected at the time.

The family dynamics were also interesting. It was clear, from the start, that the parents loved their children, but didn’t seem to know how to put aside their own lives and art for the sake of their children. This isn’t to say they were bad parents – they both clearly loved their children. But, each of the girls suffered from neglect in some regard or another.

“… and sometimes Eva and I sat up together and watched, quiet amongst the laughter of adults like stones in midstream.”

It was interesting to see it from Lily’s perspective because she’s a passive observer while the family builds up and eventually collapses. But, later in the book, she’s the center of the story. It ties in nicely with her own perspective of being an outsider wanting in and, eventually, finding more clarity through revisiting her own life and her own broken relationships.

“I will wake tomorrow, I thought, and this night will be inside me.”

This is one of favourite reads this year (possibly of all time) and I’m very tempted to buy a copy to keep.