Friday, August 23, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 4


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 4, Recovering a Sense of Integrity

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 4’s theme is “recovering a sense of integrity.” I do find the themes pretty arbitrary, but this week’s a unique one for sure. Week 4 introduces the concept of media deprivation. Originally, Cameron pitched the concept as reading deprivation and the task was no reading for the entire week. Given our technology boom, she now suggests the term media deprivation, to include: no television, no computer games, no internet, etc. If you can, no phone. (I know: I heard some of you gasp.)

Contrary to Cameron’s suggestion in her introduction, I read the whole book before I even started the program. Uncertain about trying the program at all, I first wanted an idea of what to expect. Anyway, when I reached Week 4, I promptly decided, “Nope, not for me. No way can I go a whole week without reading. Is she insane? What kind of cruel person asks that of me?” and stopped reading. Of course, as these posts indicate, there’s more to the story. After a few weeks to mull on the idea, I warmed to it, or at least to trying it. Worst case scenario: I decide on first day of deprivation that I refuse to continue it and stop, but hopefully by attempting it I can learn about myself and really that’s the whole point here. However, I’m glad I knew to expect the media deprivation assignment ahead of time; otherwise, I would have thrown a big tantrum when I reached Week 4, maybe even given up on the program then and there in protest.

Part of getting the most out of anything is tailoring it to yourself. Cameron talks about how she always receives a lot of backlash to Week 4’s media deprivation, including lots of condescension about how impractical it is in this day and age, especially given the specific responsibilities most of us have. Cameron makes the point that she’s not asking anyone to get themselves fired; do whatever you need to do to keep your life functioning but honestly ask yourself what you can cut. For my part, I didn’t use my phone at all during this week, but I did decide to do a quick check in every evening, just in case someone had called or texted with anything urgent. I also let those closest to me know about my media deprivation week ahead of time, so they understood why I only responded once a day, in the evening. Avoiding television proved difficult in a shared house where others have it on a lot. I found I became less social in my efforts at avoiding the TV. By the end of the week, I made an exception for watching television with others, but still no watching it by myself for TV’s sake.

I struggled the most with not reading. To oversimplify things, I categorize television and computer games as “bad.” Even though I do enjoy them in reasonable moderation, I’ve very much internalized our society’s perception of those activities as lazy time wasters. So I can hop on board the idea of giving them up for a week. However, I’ve always considered reading “good,” associated with intellectual enlightenment, so I grumbled a lot to myself all week about the implication that we need breaks from it. Plus I’ve gone without television, etc. before, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone a week without reading. However, Cameron made some good points supporting her idea. She talks about how we spend much of our days inundated with other people’s words, and how, worthwhile though those words may be, that makes it difficult to find our own creative voices. Sometimes we need periods where we shut out the other chatter and listen primarily to ourselves. She convinced me enough to give this whole media deprivation thing an honest try.

To my own shock, at the end of the first day I loved media deprivation. It felt so freeing; I had a good chunk of time that normally goes to certain activities and it does encourage you to explore other interests that often get sidelined. I convinced myself I liked this concept enough to maybe even do a media deprivation week once every month! However, it all went downhill for me on the second day. To make a long story short, I discovered that I am Celiac in May 2018 and since then have been trying to teach myself gluten-free cooking, especially dishes I loved with gluten and now miss. Anyway, on day two I had a gluten-free cooking failure and this was my third failed attempt trying to make this dish gluten-free. Feeling very discouraged, I wanted to curl up on the couch and watch an episode or two of television before hopping into another task, and then I felt extremely frustrated that I wasn’t “allowed” to do that. From that point on, I spent the rest of the week in more of a withdrawal. Though I enjoyed doing other activities, I mostly felt cranky that I knew I was being denied others. Then the next week, Week 5, I had a bounce-back binge. I’ve often heard dieting doesn’t work well for most people, because it’s too restrictive, only multiplying cravings. Dieting works at first, until the dieter reaches a breaking point and then overeats instead. Media deprivation felt like that perception of dieting to me. After a week of denying myself these things, I had trouble being productive the next week; all I wanted to do was the things I missed the week before: read, watch TV, play games, clutch my phone to my chest and promise never to leave it again. However, I will say that the point of the assignment is to learn about yourself and that I did. I had no idea before this deprivation how much I rely on television as a comforting transition. I also didn’t realize how intensely reading ties into my sense of identity. If I’m not reading, who am I?

As for some of the other exercises, I wasn’t expecting to but I really liked writing our own artist prayer, a kind of poem encouraging your creativity. I write fantasy and I ended up pulling on references to the magic systems within my own books to write about yearning and empowerment. The process and end result were both very rewarding, especially because my prayer was so specifically individualized to me. On the other hand, I really didn’t get much from the time travel letter exercise, where you write a letter to your current self from the perspective of your 8-year-old self and then your 80-year-old self. I can be a literal person and didn’t like the level of imagination over fact required for writing from the perspective of my future self.

The morning pages no longer feel like stewing to me, but I do often struggle filling an entire three pages and still worry it’s a time waster. For my artist date this week, I did a puzzle. I love puzzles and think they’re one of the few mindful activities I enjoyed before ever “discovering” mindfulness. With puzzles, you work hard on something challenging only to promptly “undo” it once finished. It’s about the activity, the present moment, and not a practical or prestigious finished product.  

I may try to do a media deprivation day again here and there, but I think a week is far too much for me. However, this challenging week certainly helped me become more aware of my habits related to media as well as what other activities I miss doing, such as coloring. I also like baking and exercise, but found there’s a reasonable limit to how much I can do those in a week! All that said, I’m relieved to have the media deprivation week behind me!
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Friday, August 16, 2019

HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN


Review of HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN: A DAWN-TO-DUSK GUIDE TO VICTORIAN LIFE  by RUTH GOODMAN

In my Victorian era research for a short story, I’ve read dozens of books that would really only appeal to a researcher or extreme era enthusiast. However, this is the second one where I see some larger scale appeal for anyone interested in learning a bit more about this era.

The first book I reviewed regarding the Victorian era, INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME, organized its content by room, which makes sense given the shifting Victorian ideology that each room should have a specific purpose. However, Goodman’s organizational scheme also makes a lot of sense: she organizes her content by following a typical Victorian person through a typical day.

This will sound odd, but I loved that this book discussed sex. For all that I’ve read on the Victorian era, writers are suspiciously quiet on that topic. In conversation, I hear many people say, “Oh, well, that’s because Victorians were such prudes.” First, that’s a slight misstatement of complicated differences in attitudes. Second, the fact that there are still English people proves that Victorian English people had sex. Third, most of what I read simply doesn’t even mention sex at all. So it’s not that the author cites historical prudery as their explanation for not delving deeper; they omit the topic entirely. In my opinion, this says much more about our modern prudery than it does the Victorian era.

I’m reading all these works for my own fictional stories, so I want to know as much as possible about all aspects of life, including the intimate parts. Goodman addresses, with exceptional detail: periods, contraception, abortions, childbirth, and more. Oh, and she does clarify that supposed Victorian prudery limited talking about sex, not having it.

What makes HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN especially unique, though, is that Goodman doesn’t simply talk the talk; she walks the walk. In other words, she actually lives the Victorian life, so her knowledge is peppered with first-hand accounts. From clothing to cooking to household setup, Goodman not only details what she’s learned in her research, but how she fared abiding by Victorian norms.
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Friday, August 9, 2019

I'LL SCREAM LATER


Review of I’LL SCREAM LATER by MARLEE MATLIN
(with BETSY SHARKEY)

I find myself filled with curiosity, confusion, and admiration towards people who can lay their whole life out for examination by strangers, especially those who share intimate and/or traumatic details. Matlin definitely falls into this category, as she walks her readers through her life from childhood to present (well, publication), including the losses, heartaches, and nightmares.

At times the book did read a little too celebrity-biography for me. There’s a lot of name-dropping as Matlin recalls everything from little exchanges to long-term relationships with other stars. As a book nerd, I know authors, but am often far behind the curve in terms of actors, athletes, and musicians. I might have found these sections more interesting except for the fact that I often didn’t even recognize the names being mentioned like I should know.

That said, what I love and admire about Matlin’s book is how she bravely lays herself open. She’s blunt about her own insecurities, doubts, missteps, and shortcomings, and heartwarmingly giddy when she writes of her accomplishments and happier memories. Despite (or perhaps because of) specifically telling us that she’s keeping some stories for herself, it feels like Matlin doesn’t hold anything back. What I so admire about memoirs that do this is the selfless hope that others might gain something positive from the author’s vulnerable honesty.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 3


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 3, Recovering a Sense of Power

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 3 focuses on “recovering a sense of power.” I particularly loved what Cameron has to say in this chapter about anger, talking about how we push it down because it’s a “bad” emotion but anger is actually a very good navigator. Anger tells us when we’ve been wronged. Anger tells us what we want. Cameron also discusses shame as another major contributor to “being blocked.” She says, “Art exposes a society to itself.” and sometimes we shoot the messenger when we don’t like what we see. Cameron’s dissection of the difference between useful and useless criticism is very helpful as well. In short, useful focuses on improvement whereas useless just insults.

This chapter introduces synchronicity, which will be a major repeating concept throughout the rest of the program and, unfortunately, one I never quite understood. I know the definition of the word, but some of Cameron’s examples strike me as either coincidence or, less than that, plain logic. If you make more effort at something, more relevant opportunities crop up in that area. To me, that’s common sense, not magic. To be fair, I think Cameron is talking about related but seemingly unconnected events; one of her examples is a woman admitting to herself that she wants to be an actress and the next day finding herself seated next to an acting instructor at a dinner party. However, I don’t feel I experienced anything like that throughout the entire program. And I found it odd, cultish—for lack of a better word, how much Cameron carries on about synchronicity with the implication that we should expect to experience it. I didn’t.

As for the exercises, I really enjoy any that have you finish a sentence. I find my answers are sometimes quite surprising, so these make for good self-reflection. I’ll share two of mine from this week. First, “My favorite childhood game was…Operation.” I was quite obsessed with that game. I could tell you who among my friends owned it and even made an extra effort to go their houses. I think Operation tapped into my perfectionism. Close enough won’t stop that buzzer! Second, “My most cheer-me-up-music is…The Parent Trap and Princess Diaries soundtracks.” I think I bought these as a pre-teen and listened to them obsessively. Not only are they both upbeat collections, but I’ve listened to them so many times that all the songs now feel familiar and comforting. 

The exercise where you list your favorite childhood foods and then pick one to treat yourself felt mean to me! I learned over a year ago that I’m Celiac and therefore can’t eat gluten. Most of my childhood favorites are now off limits. However, I did use my disappointment over this task as a push to make gluten-free toad in the hole. It came out delicious and also triggered me listing all my favorite gluten foods in the hopes that one day I’ll master a homecooked, gluten-free version. My list includes: crab cheese wontons, bao, samosas, naan, tonkatsu, and okonomiyaki. And now my mouth is watering.

I really liked the exercise where you list several people you admire and then specify what traits you admire about them. The trends in traits show you what you value in other people as well as yourself. To mention some of the traits that repeated for me, I like honest and direct, down-to-earth, nontraditional, considerate listeners. The next part of the exercise threw me a little: listing people you secretly admire. I don’t secretly admire anyone; anyone I admire I do so openly. When an exercise stumps me, I try to be flexible in how I interpret it, so I ended up writing fictional characters for this set. My list includes Amy from Brooklyn-99 and Lesley Knope from Parks & Recreation: both overachievers with a silly streak.

My morning pages feel easy and natural now. Three weeks in and they’re a habit. For my artist date, I used some flying wish paper. It was fun and the exact type of thing I normally brush off as a “time waster.” (Case in point, someone gave me that flying wish paper perhaps eight years ago and then it only took me half an hour to finally use it.)

I’m starting to view The Artist’s Way program less as hard, sometimes cheesy work and more as fun play. I look forward to the reading, exercises, and artist date each week. I relish all the reflection and exploration; contrary to my first week impressions, I’m finding this program aligns nicely with my mindfulness efforts. Allowing myself to pursue whatever calls to me is making me feel much more relaxed and balanced.
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Friday, July 26, 2019

AT HOME


Review of AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE by BILL BRYSON

Known for writing compelling nonfiction, Bryson delivers again with eclectic content. While AT HOME focuses around our private space, taking us room by room, the topics explored are so variable as to make the theme seem somewhat arbitrary. The chapter on the dining room touches on everything from nutrition to a brief history of the salt and coffee trades. The chapter on the bedroom, which was often used as a sickroom, includes discussion of historical medical practices. In truth, AT HOME is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia convincingly sorted around the concept of “home.”

My favorite aspect of Bryson’s writing is its accessibility. That really makes or breaks a good nonfiction piece, as plenty of experts don’t know how to condense or organize their knowledge into something compelling and logical to a layman. Despite Bryson’s varied content, he leads us naturally from one topic to another. Reading this book feels a bit like sitting down for a cup of tea with a chatty friend (whom you’re happy to let go on and on, and do all the talking, because, boy, can they ever spin a yarn). The color photos also add to the book’s appeal, breaking up the chunks of text with relevant and interesting images.

AT HOME is a traveler of a book. In regaling his readers with the history of each room, Bryson takes us from Ancient Rome to the Victorian Era to modern day and at times theorizing into the future. In terms of geography, Bryson mostly bounces us across the pond between the United States and England. However, topic is where we see the most distance from one stop to another. In one book, Bryson weaves in mentions of: the Crystal Palace, Skara Brae, slavery, Mrs. Beeton, whaling, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower, patent politics, stair statistics, humorous chamber pots, mouches, and natural selection.

If you find that list hard to believe, you’re just going to have to read this book for yourself.

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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Friday, May 31, 2019

THE ARTIST'S WAY


Review of THE ARTIST’S WAY by JULIA CAMERON

Lately, I’ve read several books about writing, including many classics such as this one. As soon as I began reading THE ARTIST’S WAY, it became apparent that it’s different than its peers. For anyone unware, THE ARTIST’S WAY is less a collection of advice and thoughts about writing as it is a more structured, reader-participation-required 12-week program. The idea behind the program is that many of us are “blocked” creatively. This doesn’t refer only to writers, or professional creatives. Cameron makes the very valid point that our society tends to project a message that one either is or isn’t a creative person. She argues that everyone is creative, but some have “blocked” this impulse, because of negative feedback. The idea behind this program is to explore those demons, work through our blocks, and release our natural creativity.

So as for my bias, I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I have lately been coming around to all the benefits spirituality, especially mindfulness, has to offer. On a superficial level, this book seems cheesy to me. There are a lot of invented terms to summarize complex ideas as well as corny statements that have me fighting an eye roll impulse. I’m very intrigued by psychology, but this reads like pseudo-psychology: insightful observations of the human condition delivered in layman, fanciful vocabulary rather than accurate psychological terms. While wise, some statements still irk me by neglecting relevant research and treating the human mind more like magic than science.

That said, I do find Cameron’s take on creativity very insightful. And, as my years of reviews demonstrate, I’m a big believer in being a critical thinker, a critical reader. Some people act like you either like a book or you don’t, but I prefer to break books down into their parts and discuss both what I loved and what didn’t work for me. Anyway, my longwinded point is that I suspected, if I could set aside my cynicism, I could gain something from doing this program.

It’s worth mentioning that I never considered myself blocked, which means I’m not exactly Cameron’s target audience. Nevertheless, I related to her introductory claim that we all have untapped creativity that we ignore for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to give her program a sincere effort, but I went into it skeptical that I would gain anything.

Boy, was I wrong. To boil the program down to an overly simplistic summary, at the core of all twelve weeks of reading and various exercises Cameron has you consider, again and again and from numerous different angles: what you wish you were doing, why you’re not doing it, and whether that why is truly valid. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I was blocked in ways I didn’t expect. I think of myself as a writer. I am comfortable claiming that identity and I write regularly without allowing any doubts or insecurities to slow me down. I didn’t expect this program to help much with my writing, and I was correct. (Okay, correct-ish.) What I didn’t realize is how many other creative pursuits I have given up, for all the wrong reasons. You know, the wrong reasons Cameron cites. For one example, I used to paint and sketch. Then pursuing writing professionally made me turn my critical, editorial eye to my artwork. My art is underwhelmingly decent in technical skill and pretty unremarkable in terms of innovation. While I think (and hope) my books might earn me money one day, I never expect my sketches or paintings to do so. Despite that, I still love painting and sketching. I find the process meditatively soothing and I experience a sense of pride for the end result regardless of how it might rank on some grander scale. I also love surrounding myself by my own artwork; instead of some stranger’s painting on my wall, I can look up and think, “I did that.” This program made me realize I stopped doing something that brings me happiness simply because I didn’t think I was good enough to justify the time commitment or expense of materials. Now I’m painting and sketching again, after almost a decade away from those activities, and thrilled to be reunited with those hobbies.

Aside from specific activities that I’m now doing but I wasn’t before I started the program (and I could list many more), THE ARTIST’S WAY has helped my developing interest in mindfulness and finding balance. We all know the world bombards us with cruel and inaccurate messages, but sorting them is easier said than done. This program teaches invaluable emotional tools for self-therapy, self-assessment, self-care, and self-compassion. I was writing plenty before this program, but I feel emotionally healthier about my writing (and everything else) now. Happier. More relaxed. Cameron definitely helped me root out some of my “negative core beliefs” and replace them with more positive affirmations.

I will also mention that when I was waffling on whether or not to try the program, a friend offered to do it with me. I would really encourage this to anyone already a little skeptical. My friend and I are both people who believe when you open yourself up to new experiences, you can gain something, even if not everything promised. While I would indeed rave about this book and program now, there are still plenty of small specifics that I found cheesy, trite, or pointless. I enjoyed having a friend with whom to compare reactions to said specifics. Especially because it demonstrated how much everyone brings their unique perspective to everything they do. Even though we both started the program hesitant about learning anything, we often differed on exactly what we found astute versus silly. It all had to do with what struck a chord with our own distinct experiences.

If you’re a scientific-minded person like myself, you’ll likely balk at some of the invented, sentimental lingo Cameron uses, but I would nevertheless urge anyone interested to give this program a sincere try. (Sometimes with syrupy words,) Cameron presents a genuinely helpful and insightful perspective on creativity and pursing what makes us happy.

As this book isn’t “like the others,” this review won’t be like my others. Since THE ARTIST’S WAY introduces a 12-week creativity program, I intend to follow this review with a post for each week of the program. (Note: I’ve already completed the program, and the posts will be staggered with my other reviews, not one every week, so this isn’t a “live” posting series.) In addition to a friend offering to join me, another thing that convinced me to try the program was reading other such blog posts. Cameron originally designed her program as a class, and when she realized how effective her students found it she published the program in book form to share with more people. However, I do see the benefit of going through the experience with others. If you don't have that option, blogs can help you feel more connected to different perspectives.

In summary, I would describe THE ARTIST’S WAY as guided self-therapy focused on creativity. Cameron provides the tools, but you do the work; you will get out of it what you put into it. Be prepared for plenty of self-reflection and surprising insights.
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Friday, May 24, 2019

THE SCARECROW QUEEN


Review of THE SCARECROW QUEEN by MELINDA SALISBURY
(third in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

My adoration of this series grew exponentially with each book. This concluding novel broke my heart, but also amazed me for it for its capacity to affect my emotions. I adored this series and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a YA fantasy trilogy that stands out in the crowd.

First, let me warn that this review contains some spoilers for the first two books.

THE SCARECROW QUEEN opens with all of our main characters in precarious positions and the author isn’t any kinder to them throughout the book. Errin is being held prisoner by Aurek, as Leif secured her safety (or rather her life more than her well-being) by promising her hand in marriage to the Sleeping Prince. However, Aurek is beyond understanding any kind of love or affection (total psychopath) and really sees Errin as little more than an interesting toy. Which means disposable if no longer pleasing. Meanwhile, Twylla flees for her life, well aware that she might be the best and only shot for destroying Aurek. With this in mind, she tries to launch a rebellion, a seemingly impossible undertaking.

I have entirely mixed feelings about Leif’s role in this story, but cannot deny that Salisbury made me FEEL and feel intensely. His character isn’t at all who I thought him to be, and at times I felt frustrated by that, but on the other hand he’s not at all who Twylla thought him to be and I related so strongly with how she must feel about that. Unfortunately, Leif’s complicated character overshadowed the rest of the story for me. I skimmed a lot, hoping for more satisfying explanations regarding his motivations.

The book didn’t provide nearly as much closure as I wanted, and I both love and hate it for that. The hate part is more obvious; I feel tortured by the unanswered questions the author has left me to brood over. As for the love part, I also feel the open-ended nature taps into a genuine aspect of real life; sometimes we don’t ever get to understand why that person did what they did. Also, regardless of any yearning for anything more, I am impressed at how strongly Salisbury made me feel. There are several standout, dramatic scenes in this novel that I not only pictured so clearly as I read them, but continue to play over in my mind.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SPINNING SILVER


Review of SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

Miryem is the daughter of the local moneyleader, but her sweet, compassionate father never follows through on actually collecting the debts owed him. As they slide into crippling poverty, Miryem takes over, earning herself a reputation as a hardhearted woman who practically turns silver into gold. Unfortunately, the fairy king hears these rumors and takes them literally. He comes to Miryem with high demands, which in turn carry high rewards for success…and high prices for failure.

Then there’s Wanda, who comes to help Miryem’s increasingly well-off household with chores and, in so doing, earns herself a little peace from her abusive father. Our last heroine is Irina, whose father intends to marry her to a cruel tsar. Only Irina knows that the tsar is possessed by some kind of demon, and that their marriage will mean her death. Each of these women work alone, and sometimes together, to craft their own destiny.

I love all three heroines. They’re all strong and smart, but in their own unique ways. However, the story switches between their perspectives…all in first person. It was definitely confusing and sometimes took me several sentences of a new chapter to piece together whose viewpoint we’re in now.

SPINNING SILVER finds that sweet spot between fairy tale retelling and original story. It has that wonderful combination of familiar and fresh, not to mention that beautiful haunting sense of mysterious old magic. Even Novik’s name for the fey—Staryk—sounds so recognizable that I thought it must be from something I read before. Well, if it is, I can’t track it down now. I think she just nailed the balance of innovative familiarity. I would recommend this book even to those who claim to have already met their fairy tale retelling limit. SPINNING SILVER doesn’t read like any story you’ve read before.

Friday, May 10, 2019

THE LAST ANNIVERSARY


Review of THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

First let me say that I liked this book. I like (often love, sometimes adore) all of Moriarty’s work. However, interestingly enough THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is both my least favorite so far as well as the one that best handled my pet peeve about her writing.

That pet peeve is that she always plants a piece of mystery bait early in the story to keep the reader hooked out of a desire for answers. I find this tension technique overdone and unnecessary, especially in Moriarty’s case since she writes such strong and intriguing characters. The withheld mystery in THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is regarding a local legend. A baby was discovered abandoned, the parents mysteriously gone with no explanation. However, it’s clear from an opening chapter that at least some people know the true story behind this mystery and, as is standard for a Moriarty novel, those secrets will not be revealed until the dramatic ending.

The withheld mystery didn’t bother me as much in this novel as it has in others, I suspect because Sophie doesn’t know either. While the book dips into other perspectives, I viewed Sophie as our protagonist and felt comfortable watching secrets unfold along with her. I think it frustrates me more when a character already knows something, but only ever thinks about it with vague, veiled wording meant to intrigue without explaining. Or even when someone else knows, but all it would take is simply asking them.

Moving away from my pet peeve point, though, what I adore about Moriarty’s writing is the nuanced characters and how all the relationships pop with believable chemistry. Yet I experienced that the least in this book so far. The characters felt a little flatter, less developed. I didn’t buy them as people I might meet, like I normally do with her characters. I struggled keeping track of everyone, as well as their relations to each other.

Having established that this one is opposite to my usual Mortiarty impressions, let me back up and explain the premise a bit more. Sophie is single when her one-that-got-away, and now married, ex approaches her with a bizarre situation. His aunt has passed away…and left her house to Sophie, much to the fury of other family members. Sophie loved that house, probably part of why the aunt left it to her. It’s on a small island infamous for the unsolved mystery. Generations back, the aunt’s family found that abandoned baby in a house they rented, with absolutely no sign of what happened to the parents.

Aside from the underdeveloped characters, I do have a few more criticisms with this one than I normally do with this author. I’m afraid I called almost every single twist in the entire book, including the main one about the original Munro Baby mystery. My frustration over this is lessened by the fact that there was one small twist near the end that I didn’t see coming and I was pleased to be taken by surprise by that one. 

Unfortunately, I will also say that the final explanation for the big Munro Baby mystery didn’t fully satisfy me. I have to suspend my disbelief far too much to be convinced, especially in proportion to how long that information is dramatically withheld. The explanation seems to rest entirely on the incompetency of others.

Honestly, I think this is fantastic book that fell a little short of the high bar I set for Moriarty’s work. The short chapters make it a fast read, and, as ever, Moriarty infuses everything with suspense and complicated relationships.

Friday, May 3, 2019

THE SLEEPING PRINCE


Review of THE SLEEPING PRINCE by MELINDA SALISBURY
(second in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

This trilogy started very well with THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER and I was excited to read the next book. Initially, I was disappointed that THE SLEEPING PRINCE opens in a new perspective, especially since the first novel ended on a slight cliffhanger. However, our new heroine Errin won me over as much as Twylla, arguably more so for being a little more relatable. (No poison skin or anything like that.)

Errin does connect to the first book. She is Leif’s sister. Leif left Errin and their mother for his job as a royal guard in a foreign country, supposedly to help his family financially, but Errin has not been feeling particularly helped. Whether his heart was in the right place or not, Errin’s brother abandoned her to handle both money issues and a mother with severe mental health problems. Now that The Sleeping Prince has awoken and is sweeping through every country, killing by the hundreds, Errin will need to figure out how to move her unpredictable mother away from their dangerous position on the border.

Errin is not entirely without help. She befriended a peculiar outlier named Silas. He wears a hood at all times and Errin has never seen his face. Their friendship is rocky; they clearly like each other, maybe more than like, but both have secrets from the other and a lot to lose if they misplace their trust. Despite all that, Silas is all Errin has right now.

I found Errin’s dream sequences odd and irrelevant, but—as with opening on a new character—trust the author. Salisbury knows what she’s doing, and by the end of the book any confusion or criticism I had smoothed out and made sense to me.

THE SLEEPING PRINCE builds to a powerful, unexpected, emotional (but, yes, cliffhanger) ending that left me desperate to start the next book immediately.
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Friday, April 26, 2019

REDEFINING REALNESS


Review of REDEFINING REALNESS: MY PATH TO WOMANHOOD, IDENTITY, LOVE & SO MUCH MORE by JANET MOCK

This memoir relays a trans woman’s journey from childhood into becoming the woman she is today. While I can imagine that a lifetime of being told who you are by others does indeed make one very thoughtful, the level of insightful self-reflection in this memoir truly amazed me. Mock distills complicated experiences, emotions, and preconceptions into powerful phrases. She’s incredibly articulate in analyzing not only herself but this complex, horrible, wonderful world.

Mock does share about some dark experiences in her life, so I would warn any sensitive readers about that, especially those who feel they can be easily triggered by others’ stories. I am wary about seeking too much darkness in the books I read as I find plenty in real life. However, I often say that it’s not a matter of avoiding darkness as there being a proportional, emotional payoff for exposing yourself to it. Watching or reading some terribly dark, gratuitous story does not appeal to me, unless there’s some deeper meaning woven into the darkness. Mock makes exploring her demons with her well worth it. She has clearly had an abundance of opportunity to think in depth about some of the worst moments and people in her life. As with many survivors, Mock comes to the conclusion (through an abundance of much more memorable quotes) that she wouldn’t be the woman she is today had she not gone through the experiences that she did.

I hesitate telling people this a memoir about a trans woman, because I think many consider that experience not relevant to their own. It would be far more accurate to say this a memoir about discovering and claiming your own identity even as others try to tell you that you’re mistaken. It’s not all about gender, not by a long shot. For starters there’s the whole victim versus survivor debate. An integral part of recovering from any tragedy is to shift from seeing oneself as a pitiable victim of misfortune into viewing oneself instead as a brave and resilient survivor. Mock is also multi-racial and grew up extremely poor, two other identities that the world thrust upon her to do with what she could and would.

Honestly, Mock is so impressively articulate about such complex topics that I find myself anxious I can’t possibly write a review that fully does her memoir justice. I would caution that some might opt to avoid books with darker, traumatic material, but aside from that I feel this is one of those books that everyone can benefit from reading. She filters her insight through the perspective of a trans woman, but most of her revelations are applicable to all humankind: about discovering and claiming your identity.