Book review – Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

24453082Big Magic has been incredibly inspirational, even “life changing,” to a lot of people, but I’m not sold. Throughout the book, I underlined a lot of good ideas and thoughts that I felt were relevant to me. But, I also skimmed over or rolled my eyes at a lot of things. This book made me think about the content well after I was finished, but not all of those thoughts were complementary.

Woowoo

I’m not really into woowoo. I used to be. Or, maybe I just wanted to be because woowoo opened the door to a lot of new, interesting, and non-traditional things for me. But, on the whole, I think woowoo stuff is nonsense: I don’t believe in spirits, I don’t believe in gods, I don’t believe in the the benefits of crystal vibrations, and I certainly don’t believe that inspirations are entities that travel around looking for someone who’s open to their idea. Gilbert does. As an example, she believes that a story she worked on but eventually ignored and lost had actually transferred to another author who nurtured that story into a published book, even though they’d never discussed the premise.

Quotable quotes

I think that one of the reasons this book is so successful is because it’s full of quotable quotes. I would often find myself drifting away from the book when I suddenly found a great line that dragged me back in. I’m pretty sure you could find a good quote on every other page, at least.

Some of these quotes ooze with that syrupy goodness we all love to hate on Instagram and Pinterest, but a lot of them are really good and/or relevant (to me, our times, our society, etc.). I don’t think that she said anything that was new to me or particularly profound, but maybe that’s just because I read and think about things like creativity fairly often.

Mixed emotions

One of the reasons I’ve struggled with how I feel about this book is because it both delighted and frustrated me. Gilbert said a lot of things that really resonated with me and even some things that made me stop, think, and get a little emotional about my own life and my relationship with creativity and art.

But, I also found a lot of her discussions to be frustrating. A good example of this is her advice to avoid fetishizing suffering. I completely agree with her on a high level – suffering is not something we should celebrate or strive for as it hurts us and hurts people who truly are suffering. But, some of her arguments made me feel that she had no understanding or respect for people who truly suffer. I struggled with how to articulate my concern because I couldn’t really pinpoint why I was concerned until I was in the middle of reading Reasons To Be Alive by Matt Haig, a book about depression and his experience living with depression and anxiety. In one section he talked a lot about famous people who’ve dealt with or continue to deal with depression, and he noted that a lot of people (himself included) use creativity as a means of dealing with or mediating their illness. For example, he writes because it helps him deal with his depression.

I think Gilbert’s intention was good and I think that she was trying to remind the reader that you don’t have to suffer in order to be able to be creative or to make things that are worthy. But, the way she did it felt like she was ignoring or possibly belittling the very real and very unavoidable suffering that some artists deal with.

So, if you read the book, remember this: you do not need to suffer to be creative, but being creative may be a good tool for dealing with or processing your experiences if you do suffer.

Confusion

One thing this book does pretty well is champion creativity: anyone can be creative, you don’t have to be “good” to be creative, etc. But, it sometimes felt a bit contradictory. For example, there were a couple of places where I felt like she was preaching that we shouldn’t bother with being professional creatives, but then spent the next several chapters providing advice that seemed geared specifically towards people who were pursuing a creative career. Taken as a whole, the book clearly supports the idea that everyone should be creative, whether you make a career out of it or not, and you don’t have to be a “professional” to share your work. But, her arguments seemed to be a bit all over the place. Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I found the lack of structure a bit annoying and confusing.

Personally, I found Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider (see my review here) to be more inspirational and motivating because they presented clear ideas in a more organized manner (read: easy to understand).

The good stuff

Despite my frustrations with the book, I did enjoy it (and, to be fair, I didn’t realize how much the book frustrated me until I thoughts about it and reviewed my notes – so, maybe don’t think too hard about the book). Gilbert said a lot of things that I need to be reminded of often and that I believe to be true:

  • Being creative doesn’t just mean being an artist
  • Your dedication to your creativity is more valuable than talent
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to do something creative
  • Originality is over-hyped – focus on being authentic to yourself
  • Good enough is better than not at all
  • Don’t look for your passion, just be open to curiosity

You made it; you get to put it out there. Never apologize for it, never explain it away, never be ashamed of it. You did your best with what you knew, and you worked with what you had, in the time you were given. You were invited and you showed up, and you simply cannot do more than that.

I will keep my copy of the book, for now at least, because it has a lot of notes that I think might be valuable when I’m feeling frustrated with my art. But, I’m not sure if this is a good book, or just a well marketed book with great quotes. But, hey, if you get something out of a book, then it’s worth the time it took to read it. So, if the premise interests you and you feel like you could use a pep talk about creativity, then this book is worth considering. If nothing else, you can skim through to the bits that you need most.

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Book review – A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

25414049.jpgA Whole Life is a quiet story of a man’s life, from his early childhood to his last days. He, Egger, is one of those people whose life looks unremarkable, but feels extraordinary. Egger’s life is never easy and he recognizes that he isn’t special. Instead of striving to keep up with the Jones’ or bemoaning his misfortunes, he accepts what he is given and he contents himself in doing what he needs to survive while enjoying his life in the mountains. In other words, he chooses to just live.

There are times when the book is a bit melancholic and even tragic, but the tone of the writing is persistently peaceful and simple, matching Egger’s quiet personality and sombre life. And, yet, the author is still able convey the crispness of the mountain life, the lushness of fluffy snow, and the heartache of losing a loved one.

The author conveys so much in so few words. It’s short and simple, but atmospheric. The book was clearly written (and translated) with a great deal of careful consideration for each word and each sentence, because there’s nothing extraneous: not a single word or a single thought seems out of place or extravagant.

I was really touched by this book and I think that it’s a story that will stick with me for a long time. In that regard, it reminds me of And the Birds Rained Down, which always seems to be lingering in the back of my mind. And, in fact, both focus on a character (or more) that is somewhat withdrawn from the rest of society and both are beautiful explorations of people living in the fringes of society.

If you’re looking for a quiet (and relatively quick) read, A Whole Life is an excellent book.

Book review – The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider

I don’t usually review graphic novels or collections of comics, but this one is a favourite that’ll be added to my small, permanent collection.

The Shape of Ideas is the graphic version of all the best creativity books out there. Snider explores creativity and inspiration by illustrating the good, the bad, and the ugly of trying to be creative. While his focus is on the arts, a lot of his thoughts could easily relate to many other areas (research, business, etc.). He explores ambition, frustration, exploration, and those elusive eureka moments.

His illustrations are lovely, fun and colourful, and his ideas are conveyed in a clever and clear manner. Best of all, he’s using visual creativity to convey the ups and downs of creativity.

If you haven’t already seen his work, check out Incidental Comics. These are some of my favourites from the past year:

 

Book review – Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

28449207.jpgThere are a lot of things that I could talk about in a review of Strange the Dreamer: the beautiful writing, the interesting characters, the fascinating premise, the consequences of the different powers the gods had, or the library (seriously! – thought only briefly part of the story, it sounded pretty amazing). But, the thing that really struck me was how boldly Taylor dove into the grey areas between good and bad, or hero and monster.

A city is under threat by the gods in the citadel above them – young men and women are taken, used, and returned when no longer needed. A young man, mentally and emotionally broken by his capture, decides to rescue his people by slaying the gods all. All of them, even the children (god-spawn). But, a few children survive. The trauma of the slaying and of trying to survive combined with their own ignorance of the reasons for the slaughter leave them traumatized and just as full of hate as the humans below.

We are left with two groups, humans and god-spawn, each equally traumatized and full of hate. Taylor doesn’t take the easy way out by presenting us with simple good and evil. Instead, she shows us good that is also bad and evil that is also innocent. Through her story, she shows that that every story has two sides, but also that knowing the other’s side may not be enough to feel empathy because fear can blind us. She also explores how fear grows to hatred and how hatred is a disease that’s hard (impossible, even) to cure.

Overall, I found the story to be an easy and gripping read. But, for me, the thorough exploration of all the different sides to the story (and how one truth can blind you to other truths) was the best part of the story. The climax leaves many pretty much everything unresolved, but it also opens new doors with new revelations (this is going to be a series). While I wasn’t a fan of the can’t-be-together-OMG romance (I’m such a Scrooge in that regard), I’ll still be looking out for the next book in the series. I’m curious to see where Taylor goes with this and who, if anyone, “wins” in the end.

Get a hold of your shelf update

Oh, hey. I had a fully successful month, with regards to the #getaholdofyourshelf challenge, which was kind of nice.

May’s challenge was to read the shortest book, so I read several. I pulled three short books and added a short book that I’d already partially read. And, I finished all of them!

For June, my challenge is twofold because I finally picked one of my audiobook challenges, which means that I have to listen to one of my Audible audiobooks that I’ve been ignoring. The overall challenge is book with the best title.

I started Lullabies for Little Criminals on my way to work on the 1st and I’m loving it. I probably won’t start the others until a little later in the month as I just got a mass dump of very popular books from the library (I won’t be able to renew them and returning them un-read will mean having to wait weeks before I can get them again). While I want to read them both, I’m mostly excited for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

Reading update, May 2017

I started May with almost 70 hours of audiobooks from the library. That’s a daunting number, even for an audiobook enthusiast who listens at about 1.5 speed. Thankfully, I returned one of the longer ones almost immediately because the production quality was poor (and the library had a print copy).

All those audiobooks meant that I didn’t finish my Novel Editions book in time for the book club discussion. I was surprised by how disappointed I was about missing it. Despite this disappointment, it was a good reading month. I completed my #getaholdofyourshelf challenge (for once!), finished last month’s #getaholdofmyshelf pick, and participated in the Savvy Reader readathon.

The readathon was part of the 50 book pledge challenge. I signed up for it for reasons … I honestly can’t remember why. It seems a little pointless as I already have a personal challenge on Goodreads, but I’ve been really enjoying it. We get little badges at milestones and for reading specific books or authors, the online community (especially on Twitter) is quite active and supportive, and the people running it are oozing with enthusiasm. Best of all, it’s based in Canada, which is a nice treat for us Canadians.

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What I read:

Get a Hold of My Shelf update

I bought about a million times more new books in April than I read (slight exaggeration). Emma, who started #getaholdofmyshelf, is trying to keep her books balanced (only acquiring as many as she reads). If I was doing the same thing, I’d be screwed.

I’m not sure if all the buying was because of all the fabulous new publications, or just because I was getting tired of winter and using books to make myself feel better. Probably both!

Regardless of the reason, my TBR (to be read) pile is expanding instead of shrinking. Also, in April, almost all the books I read were audiobooks or books that weren’t on my TBR shelf (i.e., mostly from the library).

I don’t mind having a decent TBR pile, but I find it overwhelming when it’s too big. Personally, I like have a dozen or so books sitting around waiting for me to read them so that I always have a few options when I’m in a slump or randomly find that I’ve finished all my library books. Unfortunately, my pile is at least twice what I’m comfortable with and I want to read every single last book, so I won’t be getting rid of any.

Anyway, the challenge … In April, the challenge was to read the book I had been most excited to get when I bought it:

As much as I wanted to read these two books, I just got stalled and I’ve been having trouble finding the time to read. April was busy, I guess.

My May challenge is the one that I’ve been desperately hoping for these past three months:

May challenge: The shortest books.

Thank you bookish gods! I have a number of books I can choose from, several of which I bought recently and desperately want to dive into. I allowed myself to first pick from the non-poetry books because I would otherwise be reading nothing but poetry all month. I love poetry, but I have some short, non-poetry books that I really want to sink my teeth in.

I ended up pulling three books, because I couldn’t pick just two. And, I’ll use this as an excuse to finish a short-ish book that I started in March.

My #getaholdofyourshelf books for the month. For May, I picked shortest book, so I pulled 3 and then decided to add The Children's Home, which I've already started.  I sort of cheated because all my shortest books are poetry books, but I really want to re

Reading update, April 2017

April was a slow start for me, in terms of reading. Most books were finished in a mad rush in the last half of the month. And, most books were also audiobooks. It was just one of those months: I was busy for the first week or so, overwhelmed by all the reserved library books that were suddenly available (mostly audiobooks), and just completely off my usual schedule. On the bright side, most of the books I read were fascinating, thought provoking, and/or excellent.

My one disappointment was that I didn’t read nearly as much poetry as I had hoped. April is National Poetry Month in Canada (and the US) and I wanted to make my way through most, if not all, of the poetry books I had on my shelf. In the end, I only managed to get through two. Both were fairly dense and took me longer to get through than usual, but, mostly, I just had too many other books on my plate. I think that I’ll try to read a couple more poetry books in May, but probably I’ll go back to reading one poetry book per month.

It feels a bit like cheating to have “read” so many books that were actually read to me. But, 5 of the audiobooks I finished were ones that I’d put on hold weeks ago. I just had the bad luck to have them all come in a steady stream over the month (and, in fact, I’m currently trying to plow through 3 long ones that all arrived within the last couple days of the April – “reading” things quickly is hard when you’re interested in the story). Each of these books were read while walking to and from work, eating my lunch, mindlessly doing dishes, and even (on the rare occasion) just sitting in my reading chair enjoying the rare bit of sun we’ve had over the last few weeks.

I’ll be interested to see how many audiobooks I get through in the coming months. Spring is (finally) in town and that means that I’ll start taking the longer routes home more and more often. In addition to this, my office is moving further away from home. My walk will be about double what it is right now. While I sometimes choose to listen to music or nothing at all (especially when I’m in the quieter, bird-filled parts of my walk), I typically listen to audiobooks on my commute. Also, with the longer commute, I’ll be losing a bit more of my free time after work, which means that I’ll have less time to read physical books each day. It’s a good thing my library has a great collection of audiobooks!

That’s all, for now. I hope you all had a lovely April.

I’ll post a #getaholdofyourshelf challenge update in the next day or so.

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This is what I read:

Novel Editions – book box subscription

This is not sponsored. I just like Novel Editions.

Book boxes are bookish mail, which is awesome, but they’re also a great way to discover books, genres, and authors you might otherwise disregard. Many book boxes also include a few token gifts related to the books or the box’s theme. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find ones that are Canadian. Doubly so, if you’re looking for general fiction (YA seems to be the most popular book box genre).

There are a number of US and UK based subscriptions boxes, but given the value of our loonie these days, they’re not worth the cost, even before adding shipping. Thankfully, I found a Canadian adult fiction book subscription service: Novel Editions.

Novel Editions, which is run by Alex, has monthly themes, a book or two, and a few small gifts related to the theme or book. Alex also hosts a monthly online book discussion, which is relaxed and casual (you’re not expected to have studied the book – it’s just friendly chit-chat). The book group Facebook page is also open to other bookish chit-chat at any time.

Here are the books (and my thoughts) since I started my subscription:

January

As soon as I read the book summary, I was worried – it didn’t sound like the kind of book that I usually pick up. But, despite a slow start and a lot of unanswered questions (clearly, there’s a sequel coming), it was a fun and interesting female centered adventure. The gifts were very apt: tea, lavender and bubble bath (tea, herbs and potions – all relevant to the novel).

I talk more about it in my book review.

February

  • Theme: Nature
  • Book: The Break by Katherena Vermette and Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

I was a little disappointed with February’s box, but only because I didn’t feel that the books weren’t great choices – one didn’t match the theme very well and the other was by an author with dubious claims to indigenous heritage (someone whose work I’m currently avoiding). That said, they’re both excellent books and I’m glad they were shared with so many readers.

I wrote about The Break twice: in a reading update and in a stand-alone review.

March

This book started out great, but I was really annoyed with it fairly quickly. Despite this, I don’t regret reading it because it’s an interesting concept and quite suspenseful. But, to be honest, the only reasons I didn’t quit the book was because of the book club.

You can read my review to get the full scope of my annoyance.

April

I’m very excited about this book. I discovered Andrew Wyeth by accident last year and I love his paintings (especially his paintings of windows). I coincidentally bought a used book of his art a few weeks ago and the cashier mentioned this book. A couple days later, Alex gave us a hint about April’s book and I was very excited about the possibility that it was the same book. I’ve been eagerly waiting for the box ever since, hoping that my guess was correct. I haven’t started it yet, but it’s on the top of my pile.

This month’s box also had my favourite set of gifts (honey, lavender linen spray and some wooden plant markers).

I’ve only been subscribed for a couple months, but I’m really enjoying the boxes and book club. The variety of books have been really good and, so far, they’ve all been good reads or good fuel for discussion. Also, this has been a great way to expand my reading – half of the books are ones that I would never have picked for myself (much more, if you look back to the month’s prior to when I started my subscription). And, while I didn’t enjoy March’s book, I did go looking for other mysteries or thrillers to read (including a great one by Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning) because it was a good reminder of how much fun it can be to read mysteries and thrillers.

Do you subscribe to a book box? Do you know of any good Canadian ones I should check out? Or, does your local book store provide a similar service? (I wish mine did!)

Book review – Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy

TreesColin Meloy’s writing is delightful. It’s full of imagination and quiet beauty. You’ll find yourself letting out little guffaws now and then, as unexpected bits of humour and sarcasm sneak into the story (particularly when certain characters, like Septimus, are around). He’s also created a world that’s rich and creative while still feeling real (i.e., not completely outlandish – it’s not hard to imagine that this place could really exist).

I utterly adored the first book in the Wildwood trilogy: it had adventure, imagination, and magic; there were several different and interesting villains; the story, place, and people were intriguing; and, there were many likeable and well developed characters..

The second book, Under Wildwood, had a lot of live up to and, while good, I didn’t love it. Because of this, I was hesitant to start the third book, Wildwood Imperium. I knew that I loved the universe Meloy had created and that I enjoyed the characters, but I was worried that this wouldn’t be enough to pull me through if the third book was lacking that je ne said quoi I found in the first book.

Thankfully, the third book was pretty fantastic. It’s fun, adventurous, and full of new and intriguing characters. On the whole, the only problem I had with it was the plot holes and unanswered questions:

  1. What happened to Swindon? Some readers also feel that his motivation was left unanswered, but he was a part of the industrial group wanting control of Wildwood. This was explained in the second book, when we discover Joffrey Unthank’s plot to plunder Wildwood’s resources, though perhaps not re-iterated well-enough in the third book.
  2. The Synod group. They’re goals, the origin of the fungi, how people were set free after the story’s climax, etc. weren’t as well defined as those of many other groups/things. Perhaps this was simply because they weren’t a part of the story until the third book. Unfortunately, I was left feeling like it/they were poorly developed.

Despite the unanswered questions, I thoroughly enjoyed the third book and feel that it complements the first two and wraps things up well enough to leave me satisfied, but wishing there were more Wildwood stories.

Another thing I loved about the book(s) was the lack of romance. I’m not a complete Scrooge when it comes to such things, but I’m so tired of the idea that boys and girls can’t be friends without being smitten with each other or being each other’s “soul mate.” It irks me that people of different genders can’t just be friends. So, I was delighted when I realized that Meloy didn’t fall into the trap of using this over-used plot device. Prue and Curtis were friends. Full-stop.

While this book (and the series overall) weren’t perfect, I can see that Meloy has a great imagination and incredible potential. I’m looking forward to his next book.

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