Friday, July 19, 2019

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA


Review of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA by DR. LUCY SPELMAN

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. I doubt many people want to read more than one, but I picked out a couple worthy of reviews. This one in particular is great for kids: with colorful topic coding, referenceable icons, and plenty of photos. That said, interested adults will appreciate the fascinating content, too.

I particularly liked the “from the field” spreads that focus on researchers studying a specific animal. Especially for younger readers, I feel this presents and encourages the option of a career in science.

With about a half dozen different animals on most of the pages, this encyclopedia is truly packed with absorbing information. The “fun” vibe makes it more kid-friendly, with color-coded maps and “animal records” that list some of the ways specific animals are uniquely impressive. For those eager to know more, the book features shorter descriptions of many more remarkable animals in the back.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 2


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 2, Recovering a Sense of Identity

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 2 of The Artist’s Way program focuses on “recovering a sense of identity.” I very much related to Cameron’s insistence that the fear of being selfish often keeps us blocked. However, she mostly discusses people who are not doing what they want, because they don’t want to be selfish. I am a slightly slanted case. I am doing what I want, but I nevertheless battle the same fears that I am selfish for living my life this way.

In this chapter, Cameron urges that you surround yourself with the right people while you do this program. She warns that most of us know other people in our life who may be “blocked,” by which she means those who observe life from a cynic’s bench seat without taking any active creative risks themselves. “Blocked friends may find your recovery disturbing,” Cameron says, a warning that might be more familiar simply phrased as “misery loves company.” She urges protecting yourself from “well-meaning doubts” and “subtle sabotage.” This program is about exploration and shaking off those negative voices; the last thing you need is people teasing and mocking you for doing any kind of self-therapy.

I want to make mention of some of the exercises from this week. First, there was the life pie. You draw a circle with six wedges each labeled for a different aspect of life. Then put a dot in each wedge: closer to the edge the more fulfilled you feel, closer to the center the less. Then connect the dots. In a balanced life, you’ll have a nice, symmetrical shape, in a less balanced life you see what Cameron calls a “tarantula.” This exercise made me laugh. My shape was not at all a surprise, but a visual reinforcement of what I already know: elongated depictions of work and exercise with a rather dented in wedge for friends. I often convince myself that too many friends or social plans will only interrupt my productivity. My expectations also lined up with another assignment: where you list the five biggest draws on your time and actually track how many hours you spend on each one. Interesting actually writing it out, but I knew the gist.

I didn’t gain much from reading the Basic Principles every morning and night. I considered them a kind of saccharine gibberish, having only as much meaning as you infer into them. I suppose the same could be said of any quote, but I found these especially convoluted and meaningless. Two examples include: “There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all life—including ourselves.” and “We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.” On the other hand, I really enjoyed picking five of my own affirmations and writing them a full five times every day this week. Naturally, my affirmations are more tailored to me than Cameron’s Basic Principles. Plus it was interesting to see how writing them so many times really drilled them in far more than reading something nice once and promptly forgetting it. Repeating them made the affirmations more into mantras, and all the more powerful.

My attitude about the morning pages might be shifting. Last week I was adamant that I would not continue them after the program. Now I am at least open to the slim possibility that I might. (At the very least, I’m no longer dead set against it.) Last week’s pages were mostly obsessive stewing, which I am now blaming on an allergy medication that caused extreme agitation. Off that medication now, my pages are more random, disconnected thoughts. And I really do like the routine of waking up and doing the same thing every day, especially since it’s something that doesn’t require too much from me. I normally wake up at five am and immediately stumble to my writing desk and start writing. While initially I felt frustrated to have the “real work” put off for the approximate half hour my morning pages take me, this definitely is a much gentler way to ease into the day. At this point, I expect I will stop morning pages for a week after the program and just see if I miss them. I also loved my artist date again this week; I have absolutely no doubt that I will continue that weekly habit. They’re extremely rewarding.

The second week of the program definitely found me getting more “into it.” The assignments are striking me more and more as self-therapy and I’m gaining a lot from the reflection. Last week triggered my return to aerial silks after two years. This week, I started sketching again after, well, a lot more than two years! I still sometimes find Cameron’s prose a little cheesy, but I’m also understanding what in myself makes me view it that way and accepting that I have a lot to gain by giving this program my sincere effort.
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Friday, July 5, 2019

THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS


Review of THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PRACTICE OF MEDITATION by THICH NHAT HANH
(translated by MOBI HO)

I waffled on whether or not to review this book, because it reads so spiritual that reducing it to a review feels somewhat sacrilegious. That disclaimer aside, while mindfulness and Buddhism are higher concepts, books are still products. A book is not special simply for being about mindfulness; a good book requires more from the author than topic selection.

THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS is an excellent-ish starting place for someone new to mindfulness. I add “ish,” because the tone is definitely that of someone immersed in the concept for years, and some of the techniques, such as specific meditation approaches, strike me as closer to the deep end than a true beginner might want. However, this book is a slim, easy read that introduces mindfulness staples.

As someone already actively exploring and practicing mindfulness, a lot of this content was familiar. Perhaps more than anything else, what appeals to me about mindfulness the most (as well as what I struggle with the most) is living in the moment. That very phase “living in the moment” has become such a cliché that, for me at least, it’s lost its meaning and wisdom. However, broken down I find the concept life-changing. THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS encourages approaching “being present in the moment” with simple tasks like dish washing.

Myself, I first encountered mindfulness in terms of mindful eating. Slow and savor are key elements. Focus on your food. Do not eat with the TV on or (be ready to gasp, readers) a book in your hand. Pay close attention to your senses: look, smell, taste, touch. Anecdotal and scientific research alike suggest mindless eating, caused by our busy lives, plays a major role in weight struggles. I also promptly realized that slowing down and really paying attention to the current moment was a skill useful in far more than developing healthy eating habits.

As someone raised among scientists, I scoffed a little at mindfulness at first. The self-compassionate, supportive lingo struck my ear as cheesy and trite. However, as I’ve opened myself up to mindfulness and actually given the techniques a try, I feel more and more besotted with the mindset. Increasingly, I tell people that mindfulness is my religion. For anyone unfamiliar with exactly what mindfulness is, THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS is a good place to start.


Friday, June 28, 2019

BIRD BY BIRD


Review of BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE by ANNE LAMOTT

I believe that books about writing fall into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business is about the industry of publishing, craft the techniques behind good writing, and philosophy the emotional pitfalls of this creative endeavor. I believe it’s important to distinguish between these three conversations, because they’re very different and readers are usually seeking specific advice about one of these aspects when they buy a writing book. For me, to say a book is “about writing,” is too broad a statement. BIRD BY BIRD is mostly about the philosophy of writing, making the book a relatable and worthwhile read for writers of all kinds.

On a basic level, there’s a lot of familiar advice here: Don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts as the only way to improve is to start. Most of writing is re-writing. Finding good critique partners makes a world of difference in the quality of your work, your understanding of a good story on a structural level, and building a good support network. Lamott also addresses the elusive art of balancing the realities of writing and publishing with the social perception of “being a writer.”

For me, the most unique section was that on professional jealousy. Lamott admits that throughout her career she has had several writer friends experience more success than her. What’s most interesting about this, though, is that sometimes she finds herself genuinely thrilled for the friend and other times bitterly jealous. Lamott suggests that this discrepancy can come down to perceived “deserving.” If we know how hard someone has worked for something and/or if we believe their work is far superior to ours and many others, it can be easier to view their success as just and inevitable. On the other hand, when we consider someone’s work of poor quality, perhaps inferior to our own, and/or we aren’t convinced they put that much (or as much) time and effort into their process as we do, then being happy for them can prove quite the impossible struggle. I entirely agree with Lamott’s perception, and this is not only one of the best articulated assessments of professional jealousy that I’ve encountered…but also one of the few works that does explicitly discuss writer jealousy at all.

I’m often slow about making time for recommendations, because they’re so hit and miss for me. Numerous publishing professionals recommended BIRD BY BIRD to me over the years. As a writer, you can feel overwhelmed by various writing book recommendations, but this one stood out as the single most recommended book. After reading it, I not only want to kick myself for not buying it a decade ago but I strongly believe BIRD BY BIRD deserves its most-recommended distinction.  

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Artist's Way Program: Week 1


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 1, Recovering a Sense of Safety

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Each week has a particular theme (although I would argue the themes are mostly arbitrary; every week is about self-reflecting on your creativity). Our first week focuses on “recovering a sense of safety.” Cameron starts each week with a short chapter written around the week’s theme, followed up by some relevant assignments.

Week 1’s chapter talks a lot about common experiences that shut down creativity: early parental criticism or concern, negative feedback from others (friends, classmates, co-workers, strangers), our own self-doubt. Throughout this program, Cameron makes the convincing point that our society perpetrates a perception that people either are or are not artists. And if you want to be creative but have been told you are not an artist, that’s difficult to overcome.

Along these lines, Cameron discusses and lists some common “core negative beliefs” about what will happen if we indulge our creative selves. These include: “I will hurt my family and friends,” “I will do bad work and not know it and look like a fool,” and “It’s too late.” As a means of investigating our own core negative beliefs, Cameron asks that you pick an affirmation for yourself (such as “I am a talented painter”; whatever you want and don’t overthink it). Write down this affirmation ten times. Now for most people, myself included, writing an affirmation triggers your inner critic. Some part of your brain responds with, “No, you’re not. You don’t spend enough time at it. You never studied art in school. Your work is too derivative.” Cameron calls these negative responses to an affirmation “blurts.” Write down your blurts, too, and, as the final step, craft each of those blurts into a new affirmation. “I don’t paint enough” can become “I need only paint if and when I want to.” You will read these affirmations to yourself at the start of each day. If any additional “blurts” come up, write them down and add new affirmations to the list. As for my own experience, I have never worked with affirmations before. Truth be told, I considered them the kind of cheesy, over-indulgent positivity that clashes with my cynical, intellectual side. Having actually tried them now, I want to change my answer. The affirmations empowered me far more than I expected, and I also realized my own flawed logic in treating my creativity and intellect as warring opponents.

Week 1 also introduces two tasks that will be with us throughout the program and, Cameron bets you, even longer: morning pages and artist dates. For morning pages, you start every day by writing three handwritten pages of whatever: anything that’s on your mind from mundane errand lists to a bigger conflict to creative inspirations. Do not overthink nor judge your pages; do not reread them or share them with anyone else. For the artist date, once a week you set aside about two hours for “creative exploration.” The idea is to do something, alone (the date is between yourself and your own creativity), that intrigues you, ideally something you normally don’t make time for, perhaps even a “time waster.”

I didn’t find the morning pages that helpful. I’ve never been someone who journals. I’ve tried multiple times, mostly at the urging of other writers, but I always end up irritated at the pettiness of my own thoughts, resenting that they’re now preserved in paper and ink, and tossing the whole journal. Also I already wake at five am most days and promptly start writing. Morning pages only postpone my “actual” writing. However, I believe you can’t say something doesn’t work until you try it, so I will continue to do the pages throughout the program. But I don’t expect I’ll have any interest in continuing them afterwards, as Cameron claims most of her students do.

I did, however, immediately like the artist date idea. With one caveat. None of Cameron’s suggestions sounded that appealing to me. For starters, I am an introverted homebody and the majority of her ideas are all about going somewhere. I have plenty of creative things I never make time for, but they’re still mostly at-home projects. I believe a big part of getting the most from anything new is being flexible and adapting it to you. Once I accepted that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do artist dates, that the whole idea is to do what I want, I loved the concept. I made a looooong list of ideas that excite me. Then, for my first ever artist date, I did something I have literally been “meaning to do” for almost a decade: started my inspirational poster. An author’s journey is filled with rejection and requires exceptional grit. A long time back, I had the idea to collect quotes that inspire and motivate me, lay them out all aesthetically pretty and colorful like scrapbook pages, and cover the wall around my writing desk with them. Then I can look up anytime from my keyboard and be surrounded by the insights that drive me.

Some of the other exercises this week included: writing up a “contract” for yourself committing to this program, listing three creative enemies and three creative champions from your past, and quickly—without overthinking—listing five alternate lives for yourself. I found the contract a bit silly and unnecessary; however, I am appreciating how much more you get from handwriting rather than typing or just reading. There’s a noticeably different mind connection when your hand forms out these thoughts letter by letter.

As for the creative enemies, two didn’t surprise me in the least but the third came as a big surprise. I wrote down the name of a childhood friend. I’ll be vague for privacy, but we met in elementary school and only now can I see it was always a one-way friendship. I really liked her and wanted to be her friend. However, she treated friendship with me more as a power position for taking revenge. For what? Well, over the years, from elementary school to high school, she and I were often put up for the same accolades…and I always won. Every time she would tell me how unfair it was, that I didn’t deserve to win. She would belittle my accomplishments and claim I won for wrong reasons. I always assumed this was normal venting over her loss, so I nodded along and apologized for winning until we moved back towards the friendship dynamic I actually liked. This person’s name popping up on my creative enemy list also surprised me because the accolades in question had nothing to do with creativity. Most were academic. But I realized the emotions around having your accomplishments dismissed are transferable. This false friend had contributed to a broader imposter syndrome that even when I do receive recognition I don’t truly deserve it.

As for the creative champions, I warmed at the memory of my favorite author pulling me aside at my first ever writing conference and giving me advice. She gave me so much of her time and was patient with all my very beginner publishing questions, but more than the exact advice she shared her greatest gift was that she took me seriously. I said I wanted to be writer and she didn’t waste any time with doomsdayer discouragement or patronizing prove-yourself questions, but instead took me aside, professional to professional, and said, “Right, here’s what you do.”

The alternate lives task also turned out to be a big deal for me. Without giving myself time to second guess, I wrote down: dancer, teacher, dog trainer, actress, and therapist. Next Cameron asks you to pick one of those alternate lives and allow yourself to pursue it a little. I chose dancer. I injured my knees playing soccer in high school and dancing is likely too high impact for me. However, two years ago I had been getting into aerial silks. I stopped after a serious injury (tearing both my hamstrings), but it had been two years since my last class, long past when my physical therapist cleared me to return. I told myself it was too expensive, but in truth I felt ashamed for the injury (I had definitely caused it by pushing myself too hard) and fearful about reinjury. My partner remembers silks making me extremely happy and was incredibly supportive about me returning despite the extra expense. Then a quick email to the instructors reassured me that they will keep my injury in mind and respect if I take my sweet time learning new moves slowly and carefully. I also reframed this as an opportunity for personal growth. Scared about injuring myself again? Don’t push so hard this time! There’s really no reason to overwork myself doing something that’s intended to be fun. 

While I definitely gained some insights and pushed myself into new things this week, I’m still hesitant about the program. A lot of the exercises, morning pages especially, felt like stewing to me. I’m cultivating a more mindful approach to life and the morning pages sometimes felt counterproductive to that. Where mindfulness suggests letting go of toxic thoughts, this program has you write them down, think hard about them, and dig deeper. There’s definitely something a little cathartic about physically writing things down as well as taking some time for myself in the morning (I normally go straight to my keyboard at five am, bleary eyed and yawning). However, thinking far into the past about who hurt you and how strikes me more as dwelling. I definitely felt this week dredged up all my insecurities. While the theme is creating a safe space, I felt in less of a safe space by the end than where I had started.

That said, I want to insert a disclaimer. My doctor had put me on a new allergy medication this week that caused such extreme agitation (near paranoia and as jittery as if I’d tossed back several espresso shots) that we had to take me off it. My emotional state probably affected my perception of the program. (It certainly affected everything else in my life!)

So far I’m finding about what I expected: some insights and exercises I consider silly time wasters and others that surprise me with how much I enjoy or gain out of them. I look forward to seeing how my perception develops over eleven more weeks of this, especially off that allergy medication!
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Friday, June 14, 2019

ANIMAL!


Review of ANIMAL!: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE by JOHN WOODWARD
(a DK SMITHSONIAN KNOWLEDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA)

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. While I doubt any average reader will take on more than one, I’ve narrowed down the encyclopedias I read to a few worthy of reviews. Of those, I think ANIMAL! might be my number one favorite.

For starters, this encyclopedia is very generous with the photos. I especially appreciate that fact given the subject matter. I would much rather see a photo of an animal I’ve never heard of before than read a description about its physical attributes. (Yes, with some other encyclopedias I found myself very curious about a specific animal’s appearance based on text description—and often running a Google search to satisfy that curiosity—but frustrated about the lack of photos in the encyclopedia itself.) Not only does ANIMAL! provide at least a small photo for almost every creature mentioned, but every few pages display a much larger photo with an additional focus on that particular animal.  

I love how many animals are included in this encyclopedia. For some creatures, such as penguins and alligators, I was familiar with the most well-known sub-species but had no idea how many variations exist. The text blurb for each animal is short but sweet, providing the most important information along with a unique or interesting characteristic or two.

Packed with stunning photos and fascinating information, I would recommend ANIMAL! to anyone looking to know a little more about all the other living things sharing our planet. For that matter, the next time I want a broad knowledge of a complex subject, I’m looking for another DK encyclopedia first!

Friday, June 7, 2019

BELLADONNA


Review of BELLADONNA by ANNE BISHOP
(second in the EPHEMERA series)

I love Anne Bishop. One of my all-time favorite authors.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to add for my review of BELLADONNA that I didn’t already say with SEBASTIAN, the first book in this series. BELLADONNA reads like more of the same, in the best possible way.

But to make a little effort (and not set a record for shortest, least helpful review), BELLADONNA focuses on said title character’s preparations for the final showdown with the Eater of the World. The book also introduces a new character, Michael, whose admirable powers are feared rather than appreciated in his landscape. Fate brings him to Belladonna, but fate may also tear them back away from each other.

Aforementioned final showdown will likely feel familiar to readers of Bishop’s BLACK JEWELS series. As I’ve claimed before, Bishop follows a definite formula: one all her own, thoroughly satisfying, and always fleshed out with intriguing characters and magic system details. However, it’s easy to draw numerous parallels between the heroines, the villains, and the sacrifice said heroines make to defeat said villains. In BELLADONNA, I particularly liked the details about how this specific sacrifice affects the Eater of the World, more nuanced than simple destruction.

Everything I read by Anne Bishop, BELLADONNA included, ranks among my favorites. I would recommend her work to everyone, although more realistically to those whose tastes align with the following three descriptors: dark fantasy romance.
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