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This review was written for my work blog, Read @ MPL. Enjoy!

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey is incredibly fantastic, offering a peek into the lives (and perhaps minds) of great cultural figures. The project started as a blog, so it has that same short, easy-reading format.

The book covers authors, composers, poets, artists, scientists, mathematicians, inventors, and filmmakers; and the huge variety in how different people create. Some toil waiting for inspiration, others chug ahead day after day. There are early risers (like W.H. Auden who said, “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.” Harsh!), night owls (Jackson Pollock said, “I’ve got the old Eighth Street habit of sleeping all day and working all night pretty well licked. So has [my wife] Lee. We had to, or lose the respect of the neighbors.”), and nappers (Buckminster Fuller practiced “high frequency sleep” where he slept for 30 minutes after every 6 hours of work). There are many parents who write while their children are napping (Alice Munro and Sylvia Plath are two) and civil servants and blue collar workers who work after a full day on a job (like Anthony Trollope and Joseph Cornell).

And their eating habits! Holy moly, their eating habits! Soren Kierkegaard would pour sugar into his coffee cup so it was piled to the rim, and then slowly pour coffee in until it dissolved. He would down that concoction swiftly, then chase it with a sherry. Beethoven counted the beans in each cup of coffee (60, if you’re interested). Patricia Highsmith didn’t care much for food – an acquaintance remarked that “she only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.”

Currey focuses on the ritual, not necessarily the product. All of these individuals produced great work, but with wildly varying levels of productivity. People have quested for the perfect routine since the beginning of time, and this book is evidence that there are as many productive ways to work as there are people getting work done.  This book can also serve as inspiration for people looking to change up or tweak their routine.

As a sneak peek, here is Benjamin Franklin’s daily routine as outlined in his Autobiography.

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 27 books toward her goal of 100 books.
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This post was written for my work blog, Read @ MPL. If you want to read all of my Read @ MPL posts, click here! Also, cross-posted at Happy Bodies!

February is still the time for self-improvement, so here are some books for anyone who wants to be more creative and who might need some inspiration for the New Year. Let these books be the kick in the behind you might need to get started.

The Artist in the Office by Summer Pierre
Artists often have to work day jobs to make ends meet, and even people with no aspiration to be a professional artist might need an artistic outlet. This book provides artistic ideas about how to use your surroundings and the materials at hand to create small projects and incorporate creative thinking into your daily/weekly routine. A lot of the exercises in this book focus on helping you examine your priorities. What are the obstacles to you making art? What are the obstacles to you enjoying your job? How are you spending your time? How do you want to spend your time? This book is a supportive guide to figuring out the answers to those questions.

Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon
This is another great book for figuring out how to be creative in your daily life. Kleon outlines 10 principles for making creativity a priority. Filled with some amazing quotes about creativity, Kleon draws from tons of fields to make some interesting points about making stuff. It doesn’t all have to be miraculous artistic genius, sometimes you just have to do something and keep doing something until things start to click. The tips in this book are particularly relevant because they focus on creativity in the digital world. Etiquette, putting your work out there, and citing your sources (in the often anonymous internet ether) are all covered.

What It Is by Lynda Barry
I think Lynda Barry is the absolute greatest, and this book is no exception. Simply put, it’s a book about writing and how to write. Barry is very encouraging and open, mixing stories about her life with instructions for writing exercises. Most of her comics and collages are on lined yellow legal paper, making it clear that artistic expression doesn’t have to be fancy and special. Art can happen anywhere! She talks a lot about how children create so much and without scrutiny, and when we get older we fall prey to judgment and the idea that we’re not really artists/writers/creators. This book is meant to help you see that the freedom and creativity we experience as children isn’t off limits as adults. We can create! We can dance! We can write! We can draw! We just need to get off our butts and do it.

And if you need a further inspiration, you should read Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman. What’s that about? Just go back in time and read the review!

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 17 books toward her goal of 200 books.
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This was written for my work blog (what are the odds, right?) Read @ MPL.

Picture Cook: See. Make. Eat.A common complaint about cookbooks is there aren’t enough pictures. Boy howdy do I have a cookbook for those complainers! Picture Cook: See. Make. Eat. by Katie Shelly is a graphic cookbook where the recipes are drawn not written. Each recipe features drawings of the ingredients and the process of preparing the dish, with the instructions contained in the drawings. The recipes aren’t strict blueprints for perfect food, but more like a framework to experiment with. Instead of a recipe for tacos, she has “Some Thoughts on Tacos” featuring a huge variety of ingredients that you can combine in any way you want to create your perfect taco. People who are strict recipe followers probably won’t like this; it’s very loosey-goosey. Shelly does finish each recipe with a ribbon across the bottom of each page featuring the measurements and quantities of ingredients, so you aren’t totally out on a limb. If you want a taste of the cookbook (pun intended!), she has posted several preview recipes on her website.

In addition to the yummy food, I am totally smitten with Katie Shelly’s drawings. The lines are beautiful and clean, the colors bold, and the recipes very tempting. Cookbook innovation is pretty infrequent. People stopped trying to change it up once they figured out a standard format. And don’t get me wrong, that format is wonderfully efficient; but not all recipes have to be that way! This cookbook is beautiful, interesting, and delicious. Some cookbooks have a tone of haute cuisine, but Picture Cook is just an artist sharing her favorite recipes.

My absolute favorite part of this recipe is the hands. Mix! Around!

Notes:
Cover photo via Goodreads.
Recipe photo from katieshelly.com.

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 2 books toward her goal of 200 books.
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As usual, this post was originally written for my library’s blog Read @ MPL.

Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman

If you are an artist or a creative type, Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman will
likely appeal to you right off the bat. Originally given as an address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the speech was adapted to this playful little tome. I say “playful” because it was designed by Chip Kidd (if you don’t know who he is, I think there is a good chance you’ll recognize his design work. Ignore what I said before.) and it is certainly not mere words on a page. The text is often layered, angled, colored, sized or otherwise altered to convey or emphasize part of the message. Some pages are stark white with a bit of text, where others are boldly colored and filled to the brim with information. Part of the beauty of this reading experience is that it’s so short; meaning that nothing has time to feel superfluous, extraneous, or annoying. I can’t imagine reading a novel like this, but this speech is ideally suited to a comical, light-hearted format.

Notice how my nails go with the color scheme of the book. Very classy.

Notice how my nails go with the color scheme of the book. Very classy.

In addition to the visual appeal (which is great), the book is very engaging. Neil Gaiman gives some really dynamite advice; which might be advice you’ve heard before, but it’s also likely advice you still need to hear. He talks about his life as a creative person, and the perils of doing a job just for the money. Even if you’re not creative for a living, “what do I want to do with my life?” is not a question you answer once. It’s a question you ask, answer, or are confronted with constantly. Frankly, good advice is good advice.

As a bonus, you can also watch the original speech online:

Super bonus: an interview about the book with Neil Gaiman on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

Note:
Cover photo via Goodreads.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Allie has
completed her goal of reading 200 books in 2013!
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This post was originally on my library’s blog Read @ MPL.

Have you ever lost a pet? Did that pet ever waltz right back into your house like nothing ever happened? That has happened to me, and it is also the premise of Caroline Paul’s book Lost Cat: a True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

Tibby & his view of the world

The book begins when Caroline Paul gets in a terrible accident where she breaks the tibia and fibula bones in her leg. That part is awful but also funny because her two cats at the heart of this book are also named Tibia and Fibula (or Tibby and Fibby for short). She’s home on the couch, feeling depressed, and attempting to heal when Tibby, the fraidy cat of the two, runs away. She feels this is literally adding insult to injury. She searches her neighborhood wailing for Tibby, hanging up posters, and feeling utterly worried about her beloved cat’s safety. She even enlists the help of a psychic, to no avail. Then after five weeks gone, Tibby walks back into the house. Not only that, but Tibby looks great! He isn’t underfed or dirty, he is just Tibby.

This is where Caroline Paul goes off the deep end. She becomes engrossed in a quest to find out where Tibby went. She wants to know who took care of him. Who heard her yelling for her lost cat and neglected to bring Tibby home? Clearly this person is some king of cat-napping monster. She uses cat-tracking GPS, a tiny cat’s-eye-view camera, and a cat communication class to deal with all her feelings of jealousy and betrayal. In addition to Paul’s sincere prose, the entire book is illustrated by her partner, Wendy McNaughton, whose work is truly excellent. She’s maybe best known (at least on the internet) for her series Meanwhile on the Rumpus.  Her drawings beautifully compliment Caroline’s ongoing neuroses (and prose). They are on this weird, purposeful journey together; and over the course of the book Tibby becomes their cat, not just Caroline’s cat.

Tibby, equipped with GPS.

Things happen in the second half of the book that I didn’t expect, and, be warned, not all happy things. But this story was so heartfelt and earnest, and so unlike what I expected from a book about cats. I definitely recommend this if you have cats or have had cats in the past, but I think it’s mostly a heartfelt story about a woman becoming obsessed with why something got lost.

+++++
N.B. The pictures came from an interview with Wendy MacNaughton & Caroline Paul on the Rumpus.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 187 books toward her goal of 200 books.
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This post was originally on my library’s blog Read @ MPL.

Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t exactly have a super cool reputation.  It’s a fantasy role-playing game popular among nerds with no social skills living in their moms’ basements, or so the stereotype would have you believe. In reality, D&D is an incredibly rich communal storytelling experience where you control and guide a single character, week after week, through a fantasy world adventure.

Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt explores the rich history of the game and the incredible variety of people who play. It started in Lake Geneva, WI and St. Paul, MN where two guys, Gary Gygax and David Arneson (respectively), ran fantasy role-playing games of their own creation for their friends. People were so excited by the prospect of having a character (persona, really) you create and play week-to-week, instead of a stagnant predetermined character. Your character has adventures where you could make any decision and do anything your imagination wanted, and molding your character and gaining experience.  The game started gaining a foothold among wargamers, but it grew pretty quickly when people started realizing the potential of a game you had a stake in shaping. It grew through the 70’s, and became quite a cultural force by the 80’s. The book delves into the company’s unconventional and tumultuous history, from self-publishing in a basement to a multimillion dollar enterprise.

Aside from hearing about it second-hand from people nerdier than me, D&D came to my attention as the focus of an episode of the TV show Community. The game is used to frame a conflict between the characters. Someone can easily become the villain because they can do whatever they want! You can turn against your friends! You can loot a corpse! You can do a musical number! You can breakdance until you puke! Anything you can imagine, you can do. In the game, as in life, your success or failure isn’t totally in your control. You have a character sheet with your features on it, your level determines what kind of stuff you can do, and furthermore the Dungeon Master rolls dice to factor in chance. You are only limited by your imagination. I know that sounds cheesy, but just imagine how much fun Monopoly would be if you could decide to trek the opposite direction around the board, attack a rival’s hotels, or cast spells to escape from jail.

The book alternates between chapters about the history of the game/the company that made the game, an exploration of the D&D community, and Ewalt’s own experience. The running narrative of Ewalt’s game provides a glimpse at actual game-play, so you can see the exciting fiction that draws players in. Dungeons & Dragons is a game, but also an entire world, an escape, a way of life, a creative outlet, and a fantasy. You might not be that impressive in real life, but within a game you can be a total freakin’ hero.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 182 books toward her goal of 200 books.
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This post was originally on my library’s blog Read @ MPL and cross-posted at Happy Bodies.

Allie Brosh, author of the new book Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened, and I are soulmates. I am absolutely sure of this. Not just because both of our names are Allie (spelled correctly), but because she gets it. She gets pets, she gets depression, she gets cake, she gets procrastination, adulthood, and spider fear, and she gets me. This book gives me all of the feelings.

This book is a collection of her writings and drawings from her website Hyperbole and a Half that cover just about whatever she wants. Her drawings are some of the best things to come out of MS Paint since the programs invention. She represents herself as a stick-ish figure with a pink dress a tuft of yellow hair that kind of looks like a party hat. It’s not high art, but it is hilarious. There is a bunch of stuff in there about her dogs, who are quite dumb but very very sweet. She also tells a hysterical story about a childhood run-in with some cake. Her stories can be incredibly funny, but also tender and meaningful.

One of the best things she does is talk honestly about her depression. On her site she addresses how she used to post a lot more but slowed down because she was depressed. It’s not something she dealt with and now it’s gone, it’s something she deals with all the time. She told the Guardian, “It’s sort of like a thing that is maybe a tunnel, but also maybe a giant tube that just keeps going in a circle. And you can’t tell which one it is while you’re in it. There might be light, but there might just be more tube.” YES. She doesn’t gloss over it; she dives in and brings you with. But it’s not all sad, and there is some truly priceless comedy in those stories.

You can read an excerpt on NPR. Let it be known, I like this book alot.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 182 books toward her goal of 200 books.
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This is a memoir about breast cancer, drawn in simple cartoons by self-taught cartoonist Miriam Engelberg. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 43 and, sadly, died at the age of 48.

The good: I LOVED that she wore a blue wig, and that was the wig that was most “her” despite being nothing like how she looked before she had cancer. I loved her observations about  support groups and people’s varied and ridiculous reactions to her diagnosis. I love that she watched a lot of TV, did a lot of crosswords, and read a lot of tabloids. She seemed like a really rad lady.

The not so good: I really wanted to like this more, but so much about it fell flat. I really really support people drawing comics just because, even if you aren’t super good at it. But I also feel like the more you draw the better you get at it, even if it’s just a teeny tiny bit! You don’t even have to try! You draw a lot, you get better at what you’re doing, even if what you’re doing is speech bubbles or repeated patterns or aliens or oncologists. I love atypical drawing/cartooning styles (like Lauren RednissEsther Pearl Watson, and sometimes even Maira Kalman falls into that category); drawings that aren’t your typical comic style, nor are they necessarily realistic or strictly representational. I think it’s weird that Engelberg read a lot of comics (she referenced my favorite person, Lynda Barry!) and drew so often, and this is her final product.

There were parts that I liked because she is relatable, but when she tried for jokes it was a lot like watching a multicam sitcom with a laugh track (really asking for the laugh), except it’s a book and there’s no laugh track! I loved when she approached the subject with humor not with comedy. Those observations were poignant and interesting, not gunning for a laugh.

I was just generally disappointed with this book. I wanted to like it so much more, but it just didn’t quite do it for me.

 

2012 Reading Challenge

2012 Reading Challenge
Allie hasread 94 books toward her goal of 150 books.

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Highly Recommended.

I started reading Decoded because I heard the re-broadcast of Jay-Z’s Fresh Air interview from last year. I also kept seeing Austin Kleon keep mentioning how good it is and I just had to read it.

There are so many reasons why this is better than a conventional memoir. This book is really good. Like overwhelmingly good. Jay-Z’s prose feels like a really intelligent, easy, affecting conversation. That is most incredible about the book is his respect. He writes with such tremendous respect for the readers, his influences, his friends, his generation, and culture and that makes it really easy and captivating. I love his music but there’s no way I could ever grasp all the layers of meaning. To that end, the footnotes are great. They’re appropriately explanatory without sounding patronizing or condescending — the pervasive tone of the book.

Throughout the book he talks about his influences. That, for me, is really wonderful. Hearing people talk about things they love is such a great pleasure. One of my favorite parts of his Fresh Air interview is when they discuss his sampling of a song from Annie. It’s funny to hear a rapper and big-time mogul talk about a broadway musical, especially the only one to which I feel connected (on account of the redhead thing). The book is filled with references to artists and works I have never heard of and ones I have, always speaking from a place of respect.

My love of this book does not end. Not only is the prose stellar and illuminating but is also perfectly visual. In the hands of someone else (I am referring to Jay-Z as the art director, and the team of artists and designers who worked on it) this could have turned out like a collage, but here it’s done with near-perfect execution and great style. In fact I would place it more in league with artists’ books because of how effectively the medium of the book is used. Often in memoirs pictures serve a purely expository purpose. In Decoded, the images, which are certainly not limited to photographs, are integral and are part of the structure and purpose of the book. It is meant to be a different kind of experience. There are the written and visual components but since it’s about music, about rhymes and lyrics, the prose is aural as well. It is so different and so stunning compared to a conventional memoir, and an astonishing success.

I think it’s really perfect that I read this as/after I read The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack. There is so much really elegant wordplay, but the nonlinear structure reflects a lot of the connections made when developing those linguistic connections. Before I started, I had read and heard reviews talking about how the book is part memoir and part explanation of his lyrics. From that I was picturing a linear memoir and lyrical explanation. The book jumps around between time periods and there is no timeline. He’ll talk about his childhood and then a story from when he was CEO of Def Jam — it’s not about the sequence of events, it’s about similarities in what actually happened and how that shaped his life and music. That constant movement, between times, between meanings of words, between ideas, is what keeps his music and this book interesting.

One last thought that was so very perfect for me, an obsessive pop culture lover. There is a section where he talks about the 2008 Glastonbury Music Festival controversy, addressing it in a wonderful, modern, pup-culture-loving way. He says, “But kids today have a mix of songs from all over the place on their iPods, and they take pride in it. There is no rock music with walls around it. It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life. It’s an open field.”


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