Self-Improvement, Writing

Morning Writing Rituals

This blog is quickly becoming a catalogue of my habits. This week, I’m turning my attention to the practice of morning pages.

Firstly, I have to note the irony of writing a post about the benefits of adherence to daily writing routines that is almost three weeks late in the posting. Not that there is ever really a good excuse, but December has been a ferociously busy time, and my daily journaling, tarot and exercise, and clearly, my weekly blogging, have lost consistency. But! I think it is partially the dissolution of these routines that helps me to so clearly see their benefit, and now we’re into that funny week, tucked away between Christmas and the new year, and I’m dusting myself off and getting back on track.

So, morning pages.

For my eleventh birthday, I was given my first blank journal. It was a lined, hardcover book, decorated with images from Graeme Base’s story book in verse, The Sign of the Seahorse. I immediately began recording the details of my days – what happened at school, what terrible injustice my younger brother inflicted upon me, etc. The content of my writing has changed (although periodically my annoying younger brother still features), my journal is not a detailed record of my day-to-day anymore, but eighteen years later, the habit remains. Writing a journal has been one of the great constants of my life so far.

Of course, there have been times when my commitment has waned. Some of my notebooks were filled over a period of years, with long stretches of silence dispersed throughout. Certainly, picking up a journal that has lain fallow for some time is a great reminder of how quickly time passes when you don’t stop to mindful of it. Sometimes journaling has felt like an obligation. Many entries start with, “So long since I’ve written, I should be more consistent.” Guilty “shoulds” are usually followed by more guilty silence.

2013 has been a great year for my journaling habit. I’ve been lucky enough that despite work, I’ve been able to carve out plenty (although of course it never feels like enough) of time for my own projects. After spending the last three-ish years finishing my MA, this year was spent indulging my own quiet pursuits – lots of reading, and many hours spent scribbling away in my notebook. It came into focus more clearly in July, when my man-friend went overseas and I had the house to myself for almost a month. I had the luxury of writing morning and evening most days, long and winding paragraphs on anything that came to mind, taking detours and following tangents wherever they desired to go.

In the last few months of the year, I made this practice more concrete by committing to do Julia Cameron-style morning pages every day. I first have to confess that I haven’t read Julia’s bestselling creativity guide, The Artist’s Way, but her morning pages technique has been described and recommended to me by friends, and has been documented by about a zillion different bloggers, so it’s easy enough to get the gist. The plan was to write three pages, without editing or planning or self-censoring, first thing in the morning, every morning (you can find the official word on morning pages at Julia Cameron’s website).

Unsurprisingly, I found that the more I wrote, and the more consistently I wrote, the more benefit I seemed to derive from writing. More words in journal, fewer words and thoughts and circular entrapments percolating around my brain. Journaling has an almost sedative effect on my thoughts, if a sedative could make you simultaneously calmer and sharper, more focused and orderly. This effect occurs both on and off the page. Although I rarely re-read my journal, a glance through several months’ worth of writing shows a development of ideas, a gradual discovery, an awareness of my shifting inclinations and motivations. I am presently at a turning point in the arrangement of my life off the page, and it is only through my continual working out on the page that I have arrived at this point.

Content is not all-important, though. The act of writing itself, and the ritual of writing daily, is as critical as what one writes. December has thrown my writing ritual into some disarray, so I currently steal my pages wherever I can (mostly in the evenings, this week), but generally, my writing happens between 7:15 and 8 am, after a motivating but brutal battering by Jillian Michaels. After a quick shower, I make a pot of tea and sit down with pen and notebook to begin. The ritual starts, not so much with putting pen to paper to write the date, but with boiling the kettle and making the space ready to begin. This commencement ritual has become codified in my brain, signalling that the time to empty out its thoughts onto the page is at hand.

These signals open up the space for expression, reflection, thoughtfulness, creativity, and release, which are ultimately all things accomplished by the act of writing. The page is the zen garden and the pen the rake, slowly allowing the mind to be stilled as the mandala appears. Twyla Tharp, choreographer and writer, says of her own morning ritual (hailing the taxi to the gym at 5 am): “It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

The tea might be the ritual, but the truly repeatable habit is writing the pages, and I would argue that the precipice at which we are at peril of shrinking from is not the start of the creative process, but life itself. Boiling that kettle and writing those pages means that every day, I make a start. Every day offers a new opportunity, and no project is too large when it can be started and finished afresh each morning. It makes room for me to exist in my day, minute to minute. It encourages mindfulness, thoughtfulness, self-awareness and creativity. Who of us isn’t constantly seeking these things? The morning pages habit is quietly miraculous. I invite you to give it a try – a new year is great time to explore a new habit.

If you need further convincing, this is a great blog series about the nature and benefits of morning pages. And for great related reading, and the source of the quote above, look up Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

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Self-Improvement, Tarot

The Practical High Priestess

This week, I want to talk about tarot. I’ve already dedicated many column inches (blog post inches? Pixels?) to books, my other passion, but this week, the cards are on my mind.

The tarot kind of crept up on me. As a lover of a particular kind of fantasy novel, I am always drawn to anything with ritual objects in it, and I love a book where the cards have a key narrative role to play (see Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus for a fabulous deployment of the cartomancer trope). Being a bit of a cynic and… I was going to say atheist, but I don’t know if that’s how I’d describe myself. Being a spiritual person who does not believe in a god or adhere to a religious method or institution (am I agnostic? It’s not as if I’m unsure about this…), I’ve often sniffed at the New Age department. Take my most favourite phenomenon to deride – oracle cards. Let dolphins tell your future! How ridiculous.

Now I’m getting off track – I started out to write about tarot and got lost in making fun of oracle cards, which is probably unfair. Oracle cards have their place and it’s miserable of me to be so negative about them! What I mean is, divination was never really for me. My interest in tarot came from enjoying it as a literary device, which in time lead me to be curious enough read Robert Place’s history of the tarot, The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination. Place explores the fascinating lineage of the cards (evolving from a 15th Italian card game, sort of like bridge), and busts a few popular myths along the way (sorry Victorian spiritualists, they didn’t come from ancient Egypt).

Somehow, while claiming to maintain a purely academic interest in the tarot, something funny started to happen. These images, these ideas started to work on me. Quietly, at first. Several months went by. I wasn’t quite ready to become the sort of person who shopped from the New Age department, who owned a deck of cards, who actually used them. Then, I got over myself.

Now, I’m coming to the end of the first year of my tarot apprenticeship. I’ve experimented with several different decks, and spent my time reading, listening, and most importantly, throwing cards. I’ve made contact with a handful tarot sages and fellow students, who have been thoughtful, knowledgeable and generous without exception. Like any discipline, one’s apprenticeship never truly ends, and I’m under no illusions that I am even approaching a level of expertise. My journey continues daily. Though I don’t have a chance to get out my cards every single day, my mind feels as though it is connected to an electrical charge, perpetually stimulated, intellectually and creatively, by these figures, these suits and symbols, and the myriad ideas and experiences that they signify.

My approach to tarot remains highly practical. I am not a psychic. These mass produced bits of laminated cardboard cannot tell your future. What these 78 images can do, though, is signify thousands upon thousands of ideas, which in turn can start an infinite number of conversations about what it means to be a human being and to experience human experiences. Your future is not set in stone, and rather than try to predict where your life will take you, the cards can empower you to fashion a future for yourself that will allow you to express your purpose most effectively. That sounds woo-woo. What I mean is, these ideas will help you to clarify what it means to you to kick ass and take names, and what steps you need to take to make that a reality (not literally – don’t kick people).

Since beginning to talk openly about tarot, and beginning to read for myself and others, it has been confirmed for me that everyone is asking questions, all day long, about the best way to live. Tarot offers an opportunity to take this question and expand your thinking. 78 to the power of a zillion different prompts for new approaches, new ideas, new frameworks for existing. It’s a tool for storytelling, empowering the reader and the questioner to authorship of their own lives. To me, this seems like such an exciting gift. An opportunity not to be sniffed at.

In that spirit, I pulled a card to capture this first phase of my tarot study, and to send me on to my next adventure.

themoon

The Moon (from Norbert Losche’s Cosmic Tarot, my absolute favourite). A mysterious card, signifying secrets enacted under cover of darkness. Weirdness, amphibious, ambiguous thoughts. Entering the unconscious. Intuition, and reflection. Perfect.

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Books, Self-Improvement

A Month Without Book Shopping

A few weeks ago, I announced my intention to take a break from acquiring new reading material in the month of November – no buying books, borrowing books, accepting free books… etc, etc. If you like, you can read my reasoning in full here, but it pretty much boiled down to me realising that I had become a book glutton, and being disappointed and embarrassed at how far removed this behaviour is from my attitude to materialism and consumption. I realised that acquiring books had become as important to me as reading and enjoying books, and that my rate of acquisition vastly outstripped my rate of reading and enjoying. So, this month has been about getting back in balance.

I’ve mentioned before that I work in a bookshop, so temptation to break my intention lurks around every corner. In fact, lurks is the wrong word. Temptation wears an oversized Spongebob Squarepants costume festooned with Christmas lights, and dances a polka while smoking a cigar and fondling itself inappropriately right in front of me all day long. Hard to miss. Going into this, I was expecting things to descend pretty rapidly into the detoxing scene in Trainspotting. You know, sweats and tears and dead babies on the ceiling. I was surprised to find, then, that I felt peace rather than deprivation.

My desire to buy came and went, and I found it surprisingly easy to sit with those feelings without acting upon them. I made a list throughout the month of books that I might want to revisit once the ban is over, and now that is it, there isn’t much I’m desperate to run out and buy. Once that initial, chemical propulsion towards a new object has exerted itself, there isn’t much left. The blush of new acquisition, and the pressure and guilt about my new possessions that usually followed it, were replaced by a sensation of calm. A feeling of spaciousness, expansiveness. My constant browsing was set aside and replaced with actual reading, and I was pleased to find myself able to pay greater attention to the book in my hand, not distracted by the pressure of what to read next. It was a fresh pleasure to pull long-neglected titles from my own bookshelves and make time for them, instead of constantly looking for something to own outside of my own collection.

Today, the 1st of December, I gave myself a free pass to buy any of the books on my list that I desired. I looked over it and found I didn’t really need any of them, nor did I want to go crazy with shopping right away. I wound up buying two titles – the new Gayle Forman (one of my favourite romance writers for teenagers), which was released in early November, and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (a recommendation from a friend). I was also tempted by The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, but I thought that the pre-Christmas rush probably wasn’t the best circumstance to enjoy an 800-page saga about subsistance farmers in medieval Greenland. Old me would’ve just bought it and put it aside for later (years later, probably), but post-November me left it on the shop’s shelf, knowing when I’m really ready to read it, it’ll be there waiting for me. Maybe in January, maybe not.

Given that I gained so much peace of mind from this experiment, I’m going to carry it on for the month of December. No new books. Easy peasy. In fact, because I was surprised about how easy I found it, I’ve decided to extend the challenge. No discretionary purchases at all until 2014. I’ve learned that I can live without new books, and in fact live better without new books, and I believe that I can also cope without new clothes, new ink for my fountain pen, new essential oil blends from Perfect Potion (my wallet’s achilles heel). I am enough in and of myself. I don’t need to buy stuff to increase my sense of worth, scratch an itch, cure my boredom, or bolster my self esteem. I am lucky to have so, so much already, and it is only by stemming the tide of new things that I can truly see and value how much I have. How liberating! I’m looking forward to it.

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Books

Christmas Picks for Grown Ups

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my Christmas picks for kids, and today, I’m sharing some of the best books for grown ups that I’ve read this year. 2013 has been a good year for my bookshelf, with some unexpected discoveries and some long-anticipated new releases. I’ll be sharing some of that good book lovin’ with my people this Christmas.

thegoldfinch

My first choice is a no brainer. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has been my unchallenged favourite novel of all time since I first discovered it almost a decade ago, and several re-reads in the interim have only cemented its place at the top of the heap. It has actually been more than two decades now since The Secret History was released, and in that time new novels from Donna Tartt have been few (as of this year, two) and far between (one every ten years or so). You can imagine my anticipation, then, when an advanced reading copy of The Goldfinch found its way into my sweating palms. To give you some notion of what to expect (insofar as that is possible), The Goldfinch follows the trajectory of thirteen year old Theo Decker, who, in a daze after the explosion at the Met that kills his mother, smuggles a 15th century Dutch masterwork from the gallery, and embarks upon a decade-long struggle to comprehend what has happened to him, and where he is going. I’ll say no more of the plot – at nearly 800 pages, it’s a whopper of a book, and it is far, far more than the sum of its plot points – and focus instead upon the sheer pleasure of the reading experience. I can hardly articulate how immersed I was, how in love with every sentence, ever paragaph, every page. As in The Secret History, Tartt’s prose sparkles, and her uncanny knack for creating such ambiguity around her characters will have you following Theo down the rabbit hole and into the dark before you have any notion of how completely you are being led. The Goldfinch draws you down the well, into the vast underground caverns of the world and of the mind, and at its centre glows the painting, both an anchor and a mirage, “a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea (p. 602).” Do someone a great kindness and give them this book for Christmas (just make sure you read it yourself first).

theoldways

This is another book I loved so much that I find it hard to talk about, but blogging is clearly not making me more articulate if I just keep saying, “I just can’t describe it!” and count that as writing, so I’ll give it a shot. This a book that is simultaneously about one thing – walking – and about everything – stories, adventures, poetry, history, art, science, mythologies, landscape, death, haunting, memory, memoir… It’s a tricky book to pin down. In terms of structure, The Old Ways is divided up into four parts – England, Scotland, Abroad (Israel, Spain and Tibet), and England again – each part covering a number of thematically themed walks in the given area. This is no travel guide, however, or, maybe it is a travel guide, but the terrain it maps is as much in the mind and the soul as the physical world. As he tramps, Macfarlane explores the relationship of path-forging to story-telling, and examines the almost occult effects of landscape on the psyche. This is travel writing, but it is also a very philosophical, esoteric book, filled with startling and strange ruminations on what it means to be a person moving through the world. With his keen eye for the terrain and vast curiosity about the history and mythology of the regions he explores, Macfarlane seems to perceive broader parameters for existence and for discerning meaning – his is a way of seeing, of knowing, that is utterly unlike anyone else’s. This book opens up the possibilities of sight, perception and movement, and it left me feeling as though I was experiencing the world through a different lens. The Old Ways is a truly unique and curious work, a treat for your soles and your soul.

thankyouforyourservice

This one is a bit of a hard sell for Christmas time. Not a lot of uplifting good news in the realm of returned servicemen and -women, and the treatment (or lack thereof) of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Next year, we’ll see the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and the publishing machine is already over-stuffing the shelves with new tomes on the subject. Of course, it’s important to know our history, to know what went before, but what David Finkel’s book asks us to do is to face what is happening right now, the shocking consequences of our current military conflicts, not only in terms of what they do to those of other nations but to our own people whom we send into harm’s way. Finkel’s depiction of these returning soldiers and the unbelievable challenges they and their families face is eye opening and heart breaking. From the peaceful privilege of my reading chair it’s impossible to imagine what these young people have experienced overseas, and what they continue to experience – emotional collapse, depression, unemployment, domestic violence, homelessness, suicide – as they come back to a system with inadequate services and inadequate comprehension of the issues they face. Finkel’s writing is superb and the depth of his personal and journalistic investigation impressive. This is such an important story, an uncomfortable story that is easier to overlook, but for the right person this will be a moving and eye-opening gift. (Let me add as a postscript that I followed up this book with The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a breathtakingly poetic and shocking novel about the Iraq war by an ex-serviceman. If fiction on this subject is more up your alley, I can’t recommend it strongly enough).

Mary Oliver(c) Dorothy Alexander  

If David Finkel is too dark for you, something by Mary Oliver might be more your pace. She’s been publishing poetry since the 1960s and already has a Pulitzer, so I’m pretty late to the party, but as someone who didn’t previously read poetry for pleasure her work has been a revelation. She does cop a bit of flak for being too accessible, for being a lowbrow poet, but I’m not such a snob that I care about that. New and Selected Poems Volume I opened me up, changed my way of thinking and seeing, forcing me to slow down, allowing my reading to become almost a form of meditation. Oliver invites you to observe nature, to recognise how alien and yet how familiar it is, and to feel your own self, equally unknowable, yearning to disperse back into the world. Like Macfarlane, she offers a different way of experiencing, of existing as a person in the world, and she grapples so gracefully with the anguish of being at once a part of the world and separate to it. One of my favourites, from a collection of the same name, 1978:

Sleeping In The Forest
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

New and Selected Poems Volumes I and II are great introductions to her work. I also love the collections American Primitive, and Why I Wake Early. I don’t know so many people who buy poetry for themselves, but a well-chosen collection makes a beautiful and thought-provoking gift. You may even spawn another Mary Oliver disciple – god knows, one collection was all it took for me!

And there you have it, my Christmas recommendations. If you are a member of my family, spoiler alert, you might be getting one of these for Christmas – I hope I’ve sold them to you well enough!

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Television

Confession: My Favourite Show on Television is New Girl

And I’m not even embarrassed to admit it (anymore).

New Girl came into my life not long after it first aired, when my other half started going crosseyed over this new show with Zooey Deschanel. My first thought wasn’t even a thought – more of a major eye roll. Ever sensitive to the manic pixie dream girl trope, and knowing how dark, thick bangs and big googly eyes can make my ordinarily clever boyfriend lose all capacity for critical thought, I was ready to go in, guns blazing, and take this bullshit down. Or, more diplomatically, leave him to watch it alone.

The pilot did contain a lot of doe-eyed over-emoting, awkward singing, and ludicrous dancing of almost Elaine Benes proportions, all designed to make us believe that this clearly conventionally beautiful, size zero actress was just a normal person, too silly and awkward and “quirky” to be an object of lust. Here was a sitcom with a female lead, an opportunity for the media to create a real, actual female character, and they’d blown it on Bambi. Like this guy, I wasn’t buying it:

“…New Girl presents us with a narratively scattered, male fantasy of a show about a cooing woman-child in a polka-dot skirt who literally can’t say the word “penis” without giggling. If this show’s going to succeed, it’s going to have to figure out how to build a slightly more complex inner-life for its protagonist.”

For most of season one, I contented myself to avoid the living room while it was on, or settled begrudgingly into the furthest corner of the couch and tried to keep my scoffing to a minimum. Then, something happened. I wish I could remember the episode, the moment that I realised I was having a great time, but it wasn’t so much a moment as a slowly dawning realisation. As Phillip Maciak suggested above, the show would have to find a more convincing way to characterise its protagonist than random innapropriate singing, and somehow, it did. By midway through the first season, the singing (I know I’m labouring on the singing, but I’m adopting it here as a metaphor for all the problematic things about the MPDG paradigm because who has the time to list all the other ridiculous conventions this trope deploys?) has been somewhat toned down, and what begins to develop is a complex network of friendships between Jess and her three flatmates.

They may be, to some degree, just sitcom character tropes themselves – the disfunctional, emotionally stunted man-child, the metrosexual, the (cringe) black former athlete, Jess’ ridiculously hot model bestie – but Jess and her male cohort are equal in cliche and disfunction, and what brings them to life is their chemistry, and their believably affectionate and problematic relationships with each other. Over time, Jess finds a place for herself in this murky soup of male friendship, with hilarious and touching results. And, critically, with results that don’t depend on her being a zany charicature of girlhood in order to play out the fantasies of her male supporting cast.

Whether or not the show advances or sets back the feminist cause has been debated in a zillion places (for example, here, here, here and here), so I’m not going to dig further into that. What I do want to say is that contrary to my curmudgeonly expectations, I love it. Some days, I look forward to nothing as much as curling up on the sofa with Jess and her charmingly idiotic sidekicks.

The will-they-won’t-they thing has been done half to death, but I’m prepared to buy (and indeed, unapologetically cheer for) Jess and Nick because the friendship seems real, and blossoming romance is gracefully written. I dare you to watch Jess’ Elvis impersonation at Nick’s father’s funeral without a chuckle and a tear in your eye. It simply can’t be done. Also, can we take a minute to appreciate a show that contains a funeral scene with a cross-dressing Elvis impersonation? Not to mention the episode in which Schmidt encourages Winston to embrace his blackness, and Winston manages to call out both Schmidt’s misguided racism and the show’s own use of the black friend trope by convincing Schmidt that all he wants is to go out and buy some crack cocaine (there are really no words to describe what happens next, suffice it to say I cried and maybe peed a little with laughter). The scene where Nick announces that his father has died to his flatmates, who have spent the preceding scene huffing helium and so have to offer their condolences at a ridiculous pitch had me, like the Elvis funeral, both choking on the gravity of the situation and weeping from laughter. It’s a delicate balance, and New Girl nails it.

If that’s not enough for you, how about this?

A dear friend recently told me that there’s a little Schmidt in all of us. I think he’s right.

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Books

Christmas Picks for Little Folk

I may not be buying any books for myself in November, but it’s getting to that time of year when I start thinking about Christmas gifts for family and friends, and my customers do too. As you’d expect, November always sees an increase of requests for recommendations at the shop, and I like to have an arsenal of excellent picks to draw on when someone asks. These are a few new and old books for little people that are floating my boat right now (and please, dear reader, while you’re shopping for littlies, dont be ashamed to have a read yourself. There are some truly outstanding writers working in this area that you would be remiss to pass over!).

charmed life dianawynnejones livesofchristopherchant

My first pick is anything and everything by Diana Wynne Jones. I’m not going to limit this to a particular title, as she is enormously prolific and all of her novels that I have read have been equally engaging. Diana’s work was my big kids book discovery of the year. Of course, her books have been around forever (ok, since the 1970’s), but somehow as both a kid and as a children’s bookseller, I managed to miss out on reading her work. Until now. This year, I’ve devoured five or six of her many novels for young readers, and I’ve found myself in the presence of a true master of the form. The scope of her imagination was vast,  and her prose imbued with humour, the most vivid imagery, and a wicked pace that keeps you turning pages past bedtime. Most interesting to me, though, is that her young protagonists are capable of the truly nuanced insight that is so often missing in writing for children. Kids comprehend more than we adults realise, and Diana’s young heroes exemplify this startling awareness of the world of adult manipulations and schemes in a way that is utterly realistic and essential to the creation of a strong child protagonist. I also appreciate the generous number of talking cats that appear in her novels. You could safely pick up any of Diana’s books and be in for a magical time, but if you’re looking for a place to start, consider the books set in the Chrestomanci world (my favourite is The Lives of Christopher Chant), or Howl’s Moving Castle. Perfect for clever middle to upper primary readers, and grown ups who may have forgotten how to exercise their magical abilities.

ravenboys

Something for older readers, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This is going to turn into another gushing rhapsody, because I love Maggie Stiefvater even more than I love Diana Wynne Jones. Look out! Once again, you could safely pick up any of Maggie’s books and be in for a transformative read, but for this Christmas, I’ll be focusing on her newest series, The Raven Cycle, and its first book, The Raven Boys. Set in a small Virginia town, The Raven Boys proposes that ancient magic and dark power may lurk beneath the most apparently safe and suburban setting. Transposing Arthurian legends into a contemporary American setting may sound far-fetched, but Maggie pulls it off with her extensive knowledge of myth and folklore, and her ability to create truly three dimensional characters, in a truly three dimensional setting that seethes with fragmented familial bonds, imbedded class privilege, adolescent rage, and dangerous, magical possibilities. Also, lots of sexy filthy muscle cars. Are you hooked yet? If not, look only to her writing. No one, no one, writes so lyrically for teenagers as Maggie Stiefvater (in fact, just this week I had a customer say that since her daughter started reading Maggie’s work, her english marks had vastly improved. It’s even educational!). You’ll become so lost in her beautiful prose that you’ll be carried away and practically eaten by goblins before you know it. This one is definitely for the older readers, teenagers and up.

alphabeticalsydney
As a children’s bookseller, I always have an eye out for alphabet books that aren’t completely lame, and they can be few and far between. Alphabetical Sydney by Antonia Pesenti and Hilary Bell is pretty much, in my opinion, the ultimate ABC book – beautiful art, an interesting theme, enough text to keep the grown ups interested on the 20th read-through, and, as you’d hope, all twenty-six letters in their correct order. This is so much more than an alphabet primer, though. As a born and raised Sydneysider, I’m pleased to say that finally, finally a book for children has come along that really captures my city, from the dazzling harbour that is internationally renowned, to the mouldy terraces that most of us Inner Westies actually reside in. Cheeky, fun and affectionate in its treatment of the city, it has the jacarandas and the yum cha, the endless renovations and the bats. My very favourite page has to be P is for Parramatta Road, about a Sydney institution that will never make Lonely Planet’s list of must-see Sydney sights, but this smoggy, traffic-heavy artery and the sometimes frankly weird businesses that line it is a fact of life in Sydney, a constant and recognisable image that is no less a part of the city than Bondi Icebergs or the Manly ferry. This is the essence of Sydney, and a great gift for visitors and Sydney dwellers, big people and little people alike.

architectureaccordingtopigeons

And finally, the sweetest, funniest, and most informative book I’ve read all year, Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather. The pigeon perspective is not given a lot of air time, and though I would gladly trade in all Australia’s pigeons for that other maligned urban pest, the grey squirrel (or a squirrel of any other colour – red, black, whatever – Australia’s delicate island ecosystem would be cursing my name, but you can’t deny the cuteness of squirrels), I do think pigeons are probably more switched on, particularly when it comes to the subtleties of the built environment, than we give them credit for. This wonderful book sets to out to argue nothing less, introducing readers to some of world’s most interesting architectural marvels as seen by the birds who dwell on and around their walls. To pigeons, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the Silver Squiggle (and isn’t it?), the Colosseum the Murder Ring, and, most fittingly, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is the Forest of Dreams. Educational but never dry, Architecture According to Pigeons will make you open your eyes to the city around you, and may even leave you feeling a little more tender towards those pesky grey birds. An interesting read for the 7-ish and up crowd.

With so many wonderful children’s books out there, War and Peace hardly stands a chance! We should occasionally read something grown up, though, so do come back in a couple of weeks’ time for my picks of the year for the big people in your life. My all-time favourite fiction writer has a new book out this Christmas, so it promises to be an epic, adjective-heavy post!

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Books, Self-Improvement

November: A Moratorium on Book Acquisition

It’s time for me to make a confession. When it comes to book shopping, I have a bit of a problem.

There, I said it. No taking it back. The problem isn’t limited to shopping, either. As a bookseller, I also acquire advance reading copies or manuscripts from publishers, and books damaged or otherwise written off from the store, not to mention all the sharing that goes on among my colleagues and I. Bibliophilia is a common ailment (and not one that I think should be entirely cured!), but having spent pretty much my entire working life in either a bookstore or a publishing company, my case may be further advanced than those seen in the general population.

Firstly, let me clear the air and say that I believe my book habit is far more defensible than, say, cocaine, or even expensive shoes and handbags. Literature is the food of our spiritual, intellectual and emotional lives; without it, I’d rather not be here. I’m certainly not giving up my love of books and reading, but for the month of November, I am abstaining from the acquisition of new reading material. This means no purchases, no special orders, no reserved books, no loans, no free books, and no requests on Net Galley. I am permitted to write down titles I come across for consideration at a later date, but that’s it. I’ll be joined by a few bibliophile friends, so we can sweat it out together. Full disengagement from the library-building impulse.

Because that is what my book habit has become – an impulse. My desire for new reading matter far outstrips my capacity to read (although I will defend having a small home library of unread books to draw upon (small being the operative word here) – you never know what you might feel like picking up, and it’s a pleasure to peruse shelves that have been curated especially for your interests and tastes). Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about materialism, ownership, and the emotional investment we have in things, in novelty, and in the thrill of acquiring possessions, and I can recognise where my passion for literature and reading has tipped over into a passion for consuming books as objects, rather than as… well, books.

An interesting way of thinking of this is the notion of fantasy selves, put forward in an excellent post over on the blog Miss Minimalist. She proposes that much of our clutter accumulates as a way of creating fantasy identities – the unused treadmill for our fantasy trim and fit self, or the endless balls of yarn for the fantasy version of ourselves who ever finishes a knitting project. Many of the objects we acquire don’t serve us in any practical way, but they function to bolster identities and notions of self that are too flimsy to exist in reality.

I must clarify this by saying that, when it comes to books, fantasy me and reality me aren’t quite so far apart. Reading is my main hobby, and one that I dedicate an hour or more to each day. In order to keep up with my book shopping habit, though, I would need to give up my day job and read full time. Therein lies the fantasy! To get a sense of how far my fantasy-full-time-reader-self has departed from the realm of the real, I decided to do a quick count of all the unread books in my house. I have two bookcases dedicated to unread fiction, and keep unread non-fiction scattered about, loosely by topic, and not separate from non-fiction that I have read. Without rummaging through ever pile and every corner, I uncovered two hundred and seventy-nine books yet to be read (for the purposes of this count, I didn’t include reference volumes or other books one would be unlikely to read from cover to cover, like complete poetry collections). Two hundred and seventy-nine. I’m not sure if that’s more or fewer than I expected.

In any case, it is probably too many. Given that I read seventy or eighty books per year, on average (I keep a list going back to 2003, when I first entered the book industry, so I have the hard data to back this up!), I have no need to acquire any new books for several years to come. Of course, this is never practical for a reader, much less a bookseller – one’s interests constantly evolve and change, and new books that demand our attention are endlessly appearing on the horizon. However, there has to be balance between our limitless curiosity and the neverending publishing schedule, and our ability to grant real, undivided attention to the small number of books that really matter to us. Confronting the data like this, I wonder if it will have a deeper, longer-term impact on my approach to consuming literature? It’s probably too soon to say, and for now, I’m just focusing on taking November one day at a time.

The purpose of this month of abstinence is twofold. Firstly, the practical: to save a bit of money and catch up a bit on the backlog. Secondly, the spiritual: to spend some time acknowledging that what I have is adequate. I am adequate. Practice at being satisfied with what is, instead of constantly dreaming of what could be. I need to break the habit of incessant browsing, incessant lusting and desiring, and just exist.

I left the store after my final shift in October with the last of my purchases in hand – I’m on a Paris kick right now, as my last post will attest, and I purchased Cheri by Colette, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, and The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, by John Baxter. That should see me through the week, and get Paris out of my system. As I left the store, I had a moment of panic. Had I purchased everything my little heart could possibly desire before the lockdown set in? The lesson in that moment was that I had not, because what the heart desires is limitless. Of course, other resources, like time and money, are not so infinite. This project is designed to bring the heart back into alignment with the clock and the wallet.

Today, only one day in, I feel calm. I have nothing on hold at the shop, and nothing calling my attention but the book in front of me (actually, there are two – I’m reading Billy Collins’ poetry, and Baxter’s book about Paris). I’m sure the panic and the urge to acquire will set in over the next few weeks, and it will test me to calmly acknowledge that and set it aside. My hope is that this month will be a challenge and an opportunity to learn, to test my will and to align my actions with my values. Wish me luck, and for god’s sake, don’t recommend me any books!

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