Here’s What I Read in August…

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August was a month of some gigs, some meetings, a week of R+R in Ireland, piccolo trumpet shedding and reading. Here’s where I tell you about the reading bits…

Another Day In The Death Of America (Gary Younge)

This one came as a gift from my mother-in-law, one of the few special members of the trusted book recommenders/gifters club. She’d read it and highly recommended it and it’s one I’ve seen now and again on bookstore shelves and in reading lists. It arrived on a day where I’d just finished a book and had a craving for some non-fiction after reading solely fiction in July, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Gary Younge is a Black British journalist who lived in the US for a number of years. The book focuses on this rather sobering fact – every day in the US, an average of seven children and teens die from gunshot wounds. Younge selects a day, November 23rd 2013 and tells the stories of ten such deaths; black, latino and white people aged between 9 and 19 who were shot and killed that day. This is an attempt to humanise; to present without judgement the lives of ten young people that are frequently referred to as statistics by politicians, activists and the media. It’s an incredibly honest and respectful book that touches on the issues that surround these deaths – issues like gun control, the incredible sway of the NRA in legislation and the relationships between police, state and the black community. A sore book but a necessary one.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

This is a tricky one. The book centres on an American family, chronicling their flaws and desires, their complex relationships with each other and others. It’s a slice of middle America in the 20th century. But I have to say, I resisted reading it for quite a long time because, with no searching or provocation, negative comments about Franzen and the book snuck into my brain and coloured my opinion before I’d even started. This is why reviews are often garbage (she says writing one. But this is a journal of books, not a review. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) I bought it on kindle because it popped up in a sale and although I own a kindle and definitely understand the benefits of such a device, my reading experience is always worse than if I hold the book in my hand. Focus and the ability to become immersed suffers on an e-reader, I think. I would say it’s the type of book I love, but I didn’t love this one in particular.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (David Foster Wallace)

Short stories are a particular creature. For me, three authors have really ripped my heart out with their short stories; Raymond Carver ,(What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) George Saunders (Tenth of December) and David Foster Wallace. To make a profound statement in a short story is something special. It’s like a glimpse into a world that leaves you wishing you knew more. Succinct and devastating. I loved every one of the pieces in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men but if you’re only going to read two, read The Soul Is Not A Smithy and Incarnations Of Burned Children.

The part of the featherfall into sleep in which whatever lines of thought you’ve been pursuing begin now to become surreal around the edges and then at some point the thoughts themselves are replaced by images and concrete pictures and scenes. You move gradually from merely thinking about something to experiencing it as really there, unfolding, a story or world you are part of. Although at the same time enough of you remains awake to be able to discern on some level that what you are experiencing does not quite make sense, that you are on some cusp of edge of true dreaming.

In Pursuit Of Silence (George Prochnik)

If we’ve hung out in the last month or so, we’ve probably talked about silence and quiet and noise because it’s a major focus in my creative practice at the moment. I’m fascinated by society’s relationship with sound and silence. This book is wonderful and I’d highly recommend it (and probably have done already) to everyone I know. Prochnik explores our relationship with sound and silence in a range of different settings; trappist monks, astronauts, the links between noise and our health, technological advances designed to address an increasingly loud world to name but a few. It shines a light on an issue that many of us take for granted but is omnipresent. Like, did you know that the number of reported cases of mental ill-health rose significantly around the area of Heathrow airport following their expansion? And did you know about Audiac, a sonic analgesic developed by a dentist that was used sound as the sole painkiller for dental work and reduced the pain of a cavity treatment down to the level of a mosquito bite according to the majority of patients? OK, I’ll stop now. Go read it.

Down And Out In Paris And London (George Orwell)

Orwell was a visionary, a truly great mind. My mind was utterly boggled after I read 1984 for the first time. And it was written in 1948?! Extraordinary foresight in his social commentary that resonates as strongly as ever. I read Down And Out…last week while we spent the week in Ireland, another from my mother-in-law’s home library and I absolutely loved it. Profound words on the human condition, shocking insights into poverty and Orwell’s beautiful prose meets Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I’m drawn to books that deal with non-romantic relationships and this one does it so well, dealing with friendships and companionship borne out of circumstance.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers)

My first Carson McCullers novel (though that’s probably the case for everyone…) which I finished this morning. It centres on a deaf-mute named John Singer and the people drawn to him as he lives in a quiet American town. Singer is like the sun in a solar system full of oddball planets, all of whom have created their own mythologies about the sun’s origin and purpose and spirit. It’s a beautiful illustration on the way people are drawn to stillness and quiet, all of the characters feeling a strong sense of calm and belonging while visiting Singer’s room in a boarding house. It reminded me of something Anne Truitt says in her journal, Daybook, about the importance in loving people for who they are rather than the idea of them that exists in you.

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves…The opposite to this inattention is love, is the honouring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

Now I’m onto Delusions of Gender but that can wait until September’s round-up…

 

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All I read in July…

 

IMG_20170723_165031_646A monthly round-up of the stuff I’ve been reading over the past month. As always, big link dump at the bottom to check out anything I mention.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a pretty expansive to-read list. The list is a mixture of things recommended to me*, things I’ve had my eye on for a while and recommendations by Goodreads. If you want to, you can be my friend on Goodreads, and see what I’ve read and what I thought. I don’t really write reviews, but I use the star ratings system. I’m a pretty lenient star giver though; giving something 3/5 stars feels just too damning to me. It’s like a literary shrug. Basically, I like almost everything I read. (Apart from Life of Pi, which was just so dull I had to bail.)

*I have a little circle of people whose book recommendations I *know* will hit the spot. It’s a tricky business recommending art to someone else and there is NOTHING WORSE than recommending something you love to someone who doesn’t get it. That’s awful for both parties.

This month’s reading:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon)

The first Chabon I’ve read, recommended to me by two great friends, Jeff and Heather Hewer. Absolutely loved it and Yiddish Policeman’s Union is on my to-read list now. It’s a gorgeous picture of two men’s lives, set against the backdrop of America during WWII and beyond.

Americana (Don DeLillo)

Don DeLillo is one of my all-time favourite authors and White Noise is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. I picked up Americana not really knowing much about it but it’s full of DeLillo’s incisive reflections of America in the 20th century. Based on a 28 year TV exec who, surrounded by money and falseness, takes off on a roadtrip across America to find some authenticity.

Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran-Foer)

I think it was about 10 years ago that I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I picked it up because I was drawn to the beautiful cover art and just loved it; a beautiful story of a young boy’s grieving process for his father who was killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11. It’s handled so delicately and so respectfully. He goes in search for the lock that matches a key he finds in his father’s closet. It reminds me of The Fisher King; the use of a search for a physical object as a metaphor for the journey through grief and a search for peace.

(I have to veer off on a brief tangent at the mention of the Fisher King. It’s my favourite film. There’s a scene at the end – no spoilers – as he lies in bed and his friend brings something very special to his bedside in an attempt to rouse him from a catatonic state. His friend falls asleep with his head on the hospital bed and he awakes to find him and the object. He whispers very softly, referring to his late wife, “can I miss her now?”. It’s the most moving piece of cinema I’ve ever come across and the imagery in that film has never been surpassed for me.)

Everything Is Illuminated was actually Safran-Foer’s first novel and I’ve never really read anything like it. Often told from the perspective of a Ukrainian translator, Alexi, recounting the tale of his journey with Jonathan Safran-Foer to find the woman who had saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The way he uses English language to paint a picture of a young man whose grasp of English is good but not great is so well done.

The Sweetest Dream (Doris Lessing)

I read The Golden Notebook a few years ago and it blew my head off. It felt like such a privilege to have shared the same Earth as a woman like Doris Lessing. The scope of that novel is astounding.

“We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.”     

The Sweetest Dream felt like coming home, being wrapped in warm blankets and smelling familiar smells. Like the Golden Notebook, it focuses on brilliant, human, flawed, complicated women and their relationships with each other and the world, this tie set in London in the 1960s onward. Lessing never uses fiction to create characters that can be put on a pedestal and has this extraordinary ability to allow you to know them as well as you’d know a close friend. It’s the type of book that leaves in an ache when you finish, as you realise that you miss these people, these fictional but completely real people.

Oblivion (David Foster Wallace)

Off all the people I’ve never met, it’s David Foster Wallace I miss the most. I’ll refrain from going into DFW too much and save it for another post – there’s too much to cover here. But right now, I’m reading a collection of his short stories entitled Oblivion. I’m not the biggest fan of short stories, though there are exceptions like the wonderful What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Oblivion is another exception. The stories are devastating in their impact, this air of rawness and humanity and starkness running through them. In particular, Incarnations of Burned Children and The Soul is Not A Smithy left me stunned.

LINK DUMP

My goodreads profile 

Oblivion (David Foster Wallace)

The Sweetest Dream and The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)

The Fisher King

Americana and White Noise (Don DeLillo)

Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran-Foer)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon)

Jeff Hewer (jazz guitarist) and Heather Hewer (proofreader and copy editor and she also has a great blog, Champagne Minimalist)

 

Sundays suck (& my thoughts on nurturing creativity)…

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Sunday afternoon. I have already hated Sundays, something inherited from my family. In fact, it’s a strong opinion in Scotland, to hate Sundays. A Calvinist overhang perhaps…? Being freelance, one’s relationship with the days of the week all but disappears but Sunday has a special, gross vibe to it. I have two things I really should be doing – booking flights and editing video footage. But I can’t…Too boring.

***I’m currently listening to an album called Tongue In Groove – Joey Baron, Ellery Eskelin & Steve Swell. I’ve never heard it before. IT IS AMAZING***

One of my priorities is how mental well-being affects creativity. When I was ill earlier this year (I had PTSD, it was rough), my creativity took a back seat. Now that I’m back and it’s back, I’m much more aware of it. In fact, I think of it now as a plant or a creature, a living thing that needs attention and nourishment every day. On a day-to-day level, this means –

  • Guided meditation when I wake up and before I start to play
  • Reading
  • Reflection – usually in the form of a written journal

For my guided meditations, I use a great app called Headspace. I usually do a general, 3-5 minute session as soon I get up then use one focused on creativity for 10-20 minutes before I start playing. For me it’s a way to ensure that the day starts well and doing it before practice works wonders for breathing and for focus. I also do unguided meditation, at least once a day. I didn’t even think of this as meditation initially; it was borne out of a need for stillness and calm which I realised was a priority while I was in therapy. I dubbed it ‘sitting nicely’. So I like to sit nicely for a couple of minutes each day, just finding my centre.

I’m a BIG reader. Reading for me feels like the coal I use to stoke the fire; it’s the input I need in order to say anything artistically. Right now, I’m reading a collection of short stories called Oblivion by the extraordinary David Foster Wallace.

A big part of trauma psychotherapy is the process of reliving a trauma. Once it’s done verbally with a therapist, you write it down and read it each day; a process called ‘flooding’. As I’m sure one can imagine, this isn’t a very pleasant process but it does teach you how to write well, how to build narrative. So I figured it was a waste of that skill to only write about horrendous things and started a journal. It’s become a lifeline, a wonderful daily activity to reflect and grow. It was inspired also by sculptor and beautiful diarist Anne Truitt, whose journal Daybook is a must for any artist, or woman, or human being.

LINK DUMP

Tongue In Groove – Joey Baron, Ellery Eskelin & Steve Swell

Oblivion – David Foster Wallace

Daybook – Anne Truitt

Headspace meditation app