Category Archives: Books

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I love a good house-cleaning binge. Every year or so, Al and I go through our stuff and do a giant purge, tossing out things with wild abandon, and we always feel SO GOOD afterwards. It’s like a workout for the spirit, getting rid of unnecessary stuff. There’s something deeply satisfying about putting things you no longer need in trash-bags and hauling them to the curb, or, even better, loading them into boxes and dropping them off at the Salvation Army. Yet, despite our periodic purges, over time, stuff — different stuff, but stuff nonetheless — always manages to creep into our house again. Thus, a yearly purge remains necessary for our household. I think this is a typical problem — too much stuff, and negotiating how to get rid of it — but it still bugs me, and I spent a not insignificant amount of time pondering it.

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This preoccupation with purging superfluous stuff and preventing clutter rebounds is why I was so intrigued when I got a copy of Marie Kondo’s slim, attractive little book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo is a Japanese organization expert — don’t you just instinctively trust someone with those credentials? — and she’s devised her own method, the KonMari Method — for tidying up and, here’s the catch, having your house stay tidy. The basic message of Kondo’s method is that you should surround yourself only with things you love, and in her book, she provides step-by-step guidance on how to achieve that.

Kondo’s basic method is different from many other organization experts’ in that she rejects the idea that one should tidy a little each day to make a dent in your clutter. Instead, she supports the idea of one, giant purge, treated as a “special event,” and done methodically, by category. That is, instead of tidying room by room, Kondo recommends tidying by category of thing: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellany, and finally, mementos. The single selection criteria for each item, Kondo stresses, is whether or not it brings you joy. She provides actual guidance about how to determine whether an item — say, a book — brings you joy, which often involves placing all items on the floor and picking them up one by one and waiting for a spark.

There’s a ton of solid, practical advice in Kondo’s book about how to effectively tidy and organize, including tips on efficiently folding clothes and socks, but what I found most useful were the lists in the book of various types of komono (miscellany) that people tend to hold onto “just because.” These include cosmetic samples saved for trips, electronics packages, spare buttons, and unidentified cords. I found Kondo’s observation that “Mysterious cords will always remain that — a mystery,” and that it’s easier and faster to just buy a new one than to dig through a giant tangle of cords, to be particularly liberating. I kept it in mind as I tossed out a huge box of cords and plugs Al and I had been holding onto for a rainy day.

I’m a huge fan of this book and I do plan on using Kondo’s method to tidy my own house from top to bottom — just not right now. We’re having a baby in a month and I know that means we’re going to have a huge influx of new stuff into our house, like it or not. Undoubtedly, some of that stuff will be less useful/joy-provoking than other stuff, and that’s okay. We can make decisions about what to purge later, once we figure out what we need to be parents. Instead, pre-baby, Al and I opted for a stop-gap purge  of our basement, getting rid of tons of cardboard boxes, wires, old papers, books, and household gadgets we’ll never use. I kept Kondo’s advice about interrogating whether an object sparks joy in mind, especially as I cleared out my books. I tend to cling to books (and given the content of this blog, that probably shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone), so in the past, it’s been hard for me to part with them. This time, though, I found myself easily tossing books away because they didn’t bring me joy. I guess the method works! Recommended for those who are ready to get their stuff organized — for the last time.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review: eight short reviews to round out 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and the internet is bursting with comprehensive end-of-year book round-ups. This post, I must warn you, will not be one of those. If you want a great list of recent books to check out, the NPR Book Concierge is a fun, interactive collection of book recommendations that I used to find some of these very books that I’m about to review. This post, on the other hand, will be a list of eight books that I’ve read recently, in no particular order. So — you know, forewarned is forearmed.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

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A friend from high school, Erin, recommended this book to me (as well as some of Patchett’s other books, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and I’m so glad she did. The premise — a famous opera singer is taken hostage, along with a number of other people, during a birthday party at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country — did not immediately grab me, but I was soon sucked in by Patchett’s beautiful writing and vividly drawn characters. The book is told from the perspective of a number of these characters — both hostages and kidnappers alike — which, in another author’s hands, might have come out as clunky or overreaching, but Patchett pulls it off seamlessly, easily flowing out of one character’s head and into another’s. The result is that we get to know these people deeply and intimately, and we really care about what happens to them, even the ones who seem, at first glance, completely unsympathetic. The ending of the book is both wrenching and lovely, and will stick with you the way only a truly satisfying ending can. Highly recommended.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

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When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class taught by Julie Orringer, who at the time was a Stegner fellow and is now a successful novelist (please check out her gorgeous novel, The Invisible Bridge). One day, as a special treat, she brought our entire class to her house in the Haight district of San Francisco and invited over her friend Adam Johnson, who read aloud to us one of his short stories from his collection Emporium. I remember sitting on the floor, eating strawberries, and listening to him read. Then, twelve years passed and I never read anything else Johnson wrote, until I became aware, two years after it was published, of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s the guy who read to us at Julie Orringer’s house. I should check out that book.” Anyway, all of this is to say that as I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, jaw ajar, I kept reminding myself that, oh my God, Adam Johnson READ ALOUD to me and a few other students twelve years ago, and how awesome is that? The Orphan Master’s Son is a truly impressive piece of fiction. It takes place in North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s and manages to capture the overwhelming brutality of daily life in that regime while still telling quite a beautiful story of love and hope. I’ve read non-fiction about North Korea before (see, e.g., Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy), but Johnson’s fictional version of the place felt even more real, even more oppressive and urgent, than the real-life stories I’ve read. This isn’t a lighthearted beach read, by any means, but there are quite a few moments of humor and lightness. Highly recommended. NYT review here, for those interested.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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I was a big fan of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, so I was eager to pick up The Bone Clocks, which follows a similar structure of interwoven, temporally distinct stories told from different characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to succinctly describe the plot of The Bone Clocks, since it spans sixty years and a host of characters and sub-plots, but suffice it to say the main action revolves around a metaphysical war between the good guys (the Horologists, a group of immortal souls who are eternally reborn into different bodies) and the bad guys (the Anchorites, a group of evildoers who manage to evade death by drinking the lifeblood of humans with “psychosoteric” abilities). Now that I’m writing this out, the Anchorites sound a lot like the bad guys in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, don’t they? Anyway, in my opinion, the drawn-out battles between the Anchorites and the Horologists were the least interesting part of The Bone Clocks; I preferred the smaller scale stories about the mortal humans caught in the middle of the larger war. As always, Mitchell’s writing is a delight — who else could coin the term “gentle-twat?”– and even the convoluted fight scenes among the warring forces were pretty fun to read. Recommended for fans of Cloud Atlas who are itching for something else weird from Mitchell’s brain.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

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This book got a lot of buzz this fall, and as soon as I started hearing about it, I knew I’d buy it since I’ve read and enjoyed (for the most part) two other books by Sarah Waters. This one might be my favorite so far. The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922 London, explores the reverberating consequences of a series of bad decisions involving love and violence. The plot includes a torrid lesbian love affair, betrayals, money woes, the justice system, lying, scheming, cheating — it’s a page-turner! As always, I love Waters’ writing; she has a gift for capturing universal truths in little snippets of prose. When describing the main character’s solo wanderings through London, she writes: “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in those tingling moments — these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.” Recommended.

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

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Like The Paying Guests, The Light Between Oceans is another story about the lasting consequences of a series of bad decisions — in this case, the misguided decision by a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Australia to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, rather than alerting the authorities on the mainland. I have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I was absorbed in the story as I read, but on the other, when the story ended, I felt quite let down by the patness of its conclusion. There’s a tough balance to be struck by an author in resolving a plot satisfactorily — tying up loose ends and answering big questions — and tying everything into such a neat bow that the story feels less authentic as a result. I think M.L. Stedman veered too far into “happily ever after” territory in concluding this story, which, at its heart, should have recognized the fact that sometimes, things do get ruined, and you can’t go back to how things were before.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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I love a good story about a mysterious disappearance. This story, set in 1970s small-town Ohio, revolves around the disappearance of one Lydia Lee, the eldest daughter of James and Marilyn. The Lee family sticks out in their small college town because James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white and their children, consequently, are considered oddities at their otherwise all-white high school. When Lydia goes missing, speculative articles in the local paper wonder about whether Lydia’s status as one of the only “Orientals” at her school could have led to her committing suicide. The circumstances leading up to Lydia’s disappearance, we come to understand, seem to have something to do with her unhappy family and social life, but it remains unclear what, exactly, happened until the very end of the book. Along the way, Ng tells a complex tale about family dynamics affected by racial and cultural tensions. My only real complaint about the way the story is told has to do with Ng’s tendency to pepper her story with “ripped from the headlines” real news items, as if to remind the reader that, yes, we’re still in the 1970s. It adds nothing to the story of Lydia Lee to be reminded that “1976 was a topsy-turvy time, [ ] culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines…” Otherwise, the story is well told, moving, and keeps you guessing until the end. Recommended.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

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The Fever may be one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent months. It is a deeply creepy, beautifully rendered look at what happens when a mysterious affliction sweeps through a high school, sending girls — and only girls — to the hospital en masse. What’s causing it? The HPV vaccine? Environmental causes? A virus? Or something else entirely? I flew through this book, enjoying how utterly creeped out I was by it, and didn’t read a single review until today, when I read the New York Times review and realized that, yes, there were some troubling assumptions about female sexuality baked into this story. But even accepting that Abbott’s starting point about young women and sex might be problematic and recognizing that her portrayals of female and male characters are somewhat skewed, this book sucked me in and spat me out. Highly recommended for lovers of dark mysteries.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, by Molly Wizenberg

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This is a slim little memoir about a couple who opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the way. It’s also sprinkled throughout with some scrumptious sounding non-pizza recipes. I enjoyed reading about the nitty-gritty involved with launching a business, and a peek behind the scenes at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the day-to-day operation of even a small restaurant. Recommended for food lovers and those looking for a light, quick non-fiction read.

What have you read this year that you couldn’t put down? Let me know; I’m always looking for my next read!

(Knitting) book review: Knockout Knits, by Laura Nelkin

Non-knitters, take a break! Today’s post is knitting talk heavy. Just a friendly disclaimer. Knitters, keep reading!

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It’s already November, which means it’s time for me to start my Christmas knitting. It’s probably more enjoyable for me to make things for people every year than it is for people to actually receive the things I make, but I do try to knit somewhat interesting (or at least practical) things for the special people in my life every year. Hence, I was excited to take a look at Laura Nelkin’s Knockout Knits, which promises “new tricks for scarves, hats, jewelry, and other accessories.” Accessories make the perfect knitted Christmas gifts, because they don’t necessarily take forever to make, and if your recipient doesn’t actually like what you made, she won’t feel like a jerk for throwing it out or never wearing it (unlike an unwanted sweater, which can haunt a closet for years).

I decided to dive right in by making one of the book’s shawl patterns, the Las Cruces Shawl (I won’t say here who I’m making it for, so as not to ruin any Christmas surprises). I chose the Las Cruces Shawl because it looked pretty and the skill level required was described as “Intermediate.” I should note that I chose an intermediate-level project not necessarily because I am an intermediate level knitter (I think I’m probably inching into “advanced”/obsessive territory at this point) but because I wanted something that would go fairly quickly and wouldn’t kill me in the process, but also wouldn’t be boring or monotonous to construct.

I started on the pattern and immediately (like, within the first line of the pattern) was forced to use an unfamiliar cast-on method. But that was fine, because Nelkin conveniently included a page reference number to a guide in the back of the book that includes diagrams for several increases, cast-ons, and other techniques. Handy! I wish more knitting books would have easy-to-use reference guides like this when they make use of not-super-common techniques.

My notes on the pattern

My notes on the pattern

So, I cast on, started to knit, and soon encountered another technique I had never heard of. Luckily, Nelkin had that one covered, too, in the beginning of the book, where she describes (and has diagrams for) several stitch-elongating techniques. So far, so good.

Work in progress

Work in progress

 

The shawl I’m making is constructed of two mirror-image triangles that will later be joined together via a center panel. I’ve made one triangle and am almost done with the second. I read ahead in the pattern to see how this whole center panel thing is going to work, though, and now I’m feeling nervous. The instructions on how to join the left and right triangles are scant, and in reading them, I can’t picture how it’s supposed to work, at all. *Gulp.* I went onto Nelkin’s Ravelry page in search of answers, but found none (although I did find an errata to the relevant part of the pattern, which I’m hoping will help when the time comes). So, I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. I’m hoping it’ll be one of those things where, once I start knitting, the pattern will become obvious (this often happens to me — turns out I’m kind of a learning-by-doing type person), but right now, I’m feeling a little anxious about finishing this shawl correctly. It’s too bad, since I was so pleased with how many diagrams and guides Nelkin otherwise included in the book. Why not a longer explanation about a non-obvious joining technique such as the one this pattern requires? I’ve been a serious knitter for two years and I’ve never encountered a pattern like this one before, which suggests the technique in question is not a common one, so a little more detail on how it works would have been appreciated.

Apart from my unease about the instructions in the Las Cruces Shawl, I’m happy with this book (so far!). It has a lot of fun accessories patterns that I could see myself making for people this year, including some cute mitts (Prolix Mitts), a cloche hat (Folly Cloche), and a lot of nice patterns involving lace. Nelkin also has a whole section about knitting with beads, which I find both intriguing and intimidating. Maybe I’ll get to that next Christmas. I also love the look of the book and I appreciate that it’s slim and compact and fits neatly onto my already overstuffed shelf of knitting books.

Hopefully the shawl will turn out okay and I’ll overcome my trepidation re: the obtuse pattern instructions. If not, at least this book will look nice on my shelf!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

 

Book review(s): six quick takes

I’ve been a book-reading machine lately, largely thanks to our New Zealand sojourn. For one thing, flying for twenty hours with, like, two movies to choose from (thanks for nothing, Fiji Air) is a situation that lends itself nicely to devouring a lot of books. Plus, being in a camper van for three weeks with not much else to do at night other than read helps, too. So, over the last two months, I’ve read a dozen books, which even for me is kind of a lot. Some of these books, of course, were pregnancy and childbirth-related (if you’re in that market, do check out Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better), but most were fiction. So here, in no particular order, are six (quick) fiction book reviews.

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The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman: This is the third book in Grossman’s Magicians series, which tell the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a graduate of the prestigious magical university Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, and his magician friends and foes. The Magicians books are dark and funny and deep and highly readable. The lazy but rather misleading way to describe them to someone is by saying that they’re like “grown-up Harry Potter,” but that’s kind of an understatement. There’s no butter beer and chaste kissing going on in these books. The magicians in Grossman’s books are really adults. They swear and have sex and make terrible, often disastrous, life decisions. But Quentin and his magical cohorts also get to do really exciting stuff, like explore and rule a magical, Narnia-esque land called Fillory, or, in Quentin’s case, get expelled from Fillory and resort to dark, illegal magic to try to make a quick buck. The third book picks up with Quentin, newly expelled from Fillory, trying to make it as a freelance, under-the-table magician for hire, and also follows up on the gang back in Fillory. No spoilers here, of course, so let me just say that I thought this book provided a highly satisfying conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read the first two books, get on that.

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Life Drawing, by Robin Black: I read Black’s Life Drawing right after finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and my great admiration for the latter may have tainted my enjoyment of the former. I find that sometimes when I read one book in close proximity in time to another, I notice parallels between them, and then inevitably begin to compare them. This can result in an unfavorable verdict for a perfectly good novel just because it happens to be stacked beside another, stronger one. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for Life Drawing. Like Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Black’s novel traces the complicated dynamics among a long-time couple and an outsider — a woman — and the trouble that such a triangle, even when not explicitly sexual, can bring upon a marriage. Unlike Messud’s novel, Life Drawing is told from the perspective of the wife in the triangle, rather than that of the outside woman. Like Messud’s novel, there are also long descriptions of art throughout the book, since the main character, Augusta (“Gus”) is a visual artist. Unfortunately, Black’s descriptions of imaginary art are even more plodding than Messud’s, and the book suffers for its long diversions into Gus’s creative process. The book spends most of its time, however, within the uncomfortable confines of Gus’s marriage to Owen, a writer with a stalled career, and the story often gets bogged down in Gus’s thoughts about her marriage — and art, and her demented father, and so on. The plot doesn’t pick up steam until well into the novel, and by that point, I had started to become irritated by quirks in the author’s writing, including long runs of dialogue in which each character repeats the name of the character to whom he or she is speaking (e.g., “I don’t know, Gus.” “I don’t understand it, Owen.” “I don’t know what to tell you, Gus.”). The dialogue was so stilted, it launched me out of the story, which was already dragging. Maybe if I hadn’t read The Woman Upstairs just before picking this up, I would have enjoyed it more, and allowed myself to get more caught up in the psychological drama of a damaged marriage, but in the end, there was not enough drama and too much psychology in Life Drawing for my liking.

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King of Cuba, by Cristina Garcia: I’m completely fascinated by Cuba (I spent a summer doing my undergraduate thesis research there and it was so weird and wonderful that I still love talking about it) and particularly by the tortured, nostalgic, complicated relationship between Cuban exiles and their motherland. In King of Cuba, Garcia alternates between two compelling characters to tell a riveting, human story about Cuba and the dynamic between its passionate, bitter first-wave exiles and its lingering, equally passionate despot. The story is told from the perspective of El Comandante — a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro — in Havana, and, ninety miles away in Miami, Goyo Herrera, an elderly Cuban exile bent on revenge against El Comandante, who he blames for stealing his first love and ruining his country. The story follows eighty-something Goyo as he plots to take out the eighty-something El Comandante, and paints a vivid, hilarious, and bittersweet picture of life in both Havana and Cuban Miami. I tore through this book and loved every page of it.

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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Al’s lovely step-mom Ginger recommended this book to me, and I’m really glad I picked it up. When I saw that it was a novel about two young people in France and Germany during World War II, I’ll admit that I was trepidatious, fearing something maudlin or ultimately hopeless. But All the Light We Cannot See is neither of those things. It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a gifted young German orphan recruited into the Wehrmacht for his technical skills. The story jumps around in time, flashing back and forth between the children’s childhoods and their young adulthoods in the throes of the war. Some reviewers hated this time-jumping format, and some loved it. I didn’t mind it, and I liked how digestible the short chapters were. Eventually, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in the walled French city of St. Malo at the very close of the war, and the results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even though this is a novel about kids in World War II, it won’t leave you rending your clothes or tearing your hair. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it’s filled with very human, relatable characters going about their lives on both sides of an inhuman situation.

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Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: I loved both of Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to read her third effort, Landline. As I sometimes do, I went into this novel blind and read nothing about it before I opened it. So imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t just a light romance, but a light, time-traveling romance! Well, it’s not exactly time travel, it’s more of a phone with a direct connection to the past. Am I making this book sound crazy? It seems less crazy when you’re reading it, I promise. Landline tells the story of a wife and mother, Georgie, a successful TV writer, who’s hit a snag in her marriage to her college sweetheart, Neal. When Georgie decides to stay home in Los Angeles to work on her show, rather than accompany Neal and their two kids to Nebraska to visit his parents, things hit an all-time low. But then Georgie realizes that the landline in her high school bedroom connects her to Neal’s parents’ house — fourteen years earlier, before they were married, at a critical moment in their young relationship. In other words, present-day Georgie has the opportunity to fix her present-day marriage with an unwitting Neal of the past. Putting aside the obvious conundrums that spring up every time you introduce time travel (the butterfly effect, and so on), it’s an interesting idea. Probably everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship wonders, at some point, what it would be like to go back and fix earlier mistakes. Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the magical phone works its magic, and things end up as they’re supposed to. Overall, while I enjoyed Landline, it felt insubstantial; when I was done reading it, it slipped right out of my brain and heart. It was a far cry from the raw emotional power of Eleanor & Park, which made me cry at the gym, or even the pure, earnest sweetness of Attachments, which I read two-and-a-half years ago and still remember vividly. Maybe the issue was that I didn’t connect with Georgie and Neal as characters enough to ever become fully invested in the outcome of their relationship; I was kind of neutral for most of the book on whether they should stay together or divorce. Rowell is extremely gifted at creating relationships that feel real and relatable, but in this case, the relationship between Georgie and Neal wasn’t enough to elevate the book into something emotionally powerful for me. Nonetheless, I would recommend this as a slim, quick little book to read on the Metro or the beach. Just don’t expect to cry at the gym.

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The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: This is the second Wolitzer book I’ve read (the first was The Interestings, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings), and after reading The Wife, I can say with conviction that Wolitzer is a great writer who sprinkles a lot of resonant truth throughout her books. Like with The Interestings, as I read The Wife, I felt compelled to highlight in my Kindle lots of passages that spoke to me, that seemed universally correct (in the beginning, Wolitzer’s description of the air on a plane, “once so antiseptic,” as now “home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes” made me grin/cringe with recognition). To its credit, unlike The Interestings, the ending of The Wife was not emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, and I didn’t end up feeling like Wolitzer had taken me through the wringer unfairly. My one complaint about the book is that its largest plot reveal seemed glaringly obvious to me quite early on, and I’m not sure it that was intentional or not. The book tells the story of Joan Castleman, the unhappy wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman, and it revisits their long marriage, from soup to nuts, to suss out the source of Joan’s particular unhappiness. Because the novel spans the length of their four-decades-plus marriage, dipping in and out at various points, it’s not action-heavy until the very end, when we jump back into the present and Joan faces the decision of whether — and how — to leave her husband. Despite being low on twists and turns, I enjoyed this book, even though I could see the big reveal coming from a mile away. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a page-turner, but the strength of Wolitzer’s writing and the keenness of her observations about marriage, particularly power dynamics within marriage, carry The Wife quite far.

Well, there you go: six books to contemplate. Some hits, some misses. Stay tuned for more book reviews, coming soon, as I’m plowing through several juicy tomes at the moment.

 

(Photography) book review: Your Family in Pictures, by Me Ra Koh

Me Ra Koh’s Your Family in Pictures came to me a bit prematurely, as it’s designed to teach you to take beautiful photos of your kids, and I won’t have an (external to my body) kid until early February (or thereabouts). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to read and absorb some of Koh’s advice before busting out my camera when Baby Green gets here.

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In the preface to her book, Koh explains that her “passion has always been to empower women — especially moms” by teaching them how to confidently photograph their children. Her book’s goal, she says, is to empower you, the reader, to “capture your family’s story, regardless of how technically versed or unversed you may be.” Well, consider me unversed. Despite taking not one but two photography classes in high school, in which I bought a clunky used camera and learned to develop actual film in an actual dark room — I nonetheless feel intimidated by the idea of Photography as an art (or worse, a science) that must be learned and mastered. Whenever I see people wrangling big, fancy cameras with lots of functions and buttons and lenses, I feel exhausted by the very idea of what they must have gone through to learn how to use such machines. This attitude hasn’t stopped me from taking tons of photos over the years, of course; it’s just that I’ve never taken the time (at least since high school) to learn anything about photographic technique because it’s just seemed like such a hassle. So, I approached Koh’s book with a bit of trepidation but also some hope that perhaps it could teach me to get over myself and learn some photographic technique, already.

The book is organized into seven sections: first, Setting Yourself Up For Success, followed by Developing A Photographer’s Eye, and then five themed chapters: Everyday Life, Holidays, Family Portraits, Tweens & Teens, and Family Vacations & Travel. I read the Setting Yourself Up For Success chapter first, figuring it would contain the most basic, practical advice. I was right. Koh gets right into things by explaining what types of light work best for photographing kids, with practical ideas like shooting against white kitchen counters or using sheer curtains as a backdrop. She then lists more tips that seem doable and non-intimidating, including several on how to get your family in the mood to be photographed. She also lists her top ten times to take candid family photos (including eating ice cream and quiet play). After reading this chapter, I already began to feel like I had some ideas about how to get a good, well-lit shot of my future kid eating ice cream.

I was most interested in Koh’s tips on developing one’s photographic eye. I think I have a decent eye for composition but I could always use more help, so I was pleased to find that she lists lots of practical tips and tricks for discovering shape, color, line, and texture. These tips include looking for a single “pop” of color to “heighten drama” in a shot, and taking note of man-made and naturally occurring leading lines to help frame photos. She also mentions The Rule of Thirds, which means framing the subject in the far left or right third of the photograph “to add more emotion, drama, anticipation.” Makes sense.

The rest of the book consists of Koh’s “recipes” for various shots, including a sunset silhouette of the family, Saturday morning playtime, and a self-portrait of mom. I really love how these recipes walk the reader step-by-step through setting up the shot and choosing the appropriate camera setting (Koh gives settings both for point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras). The steps break down the shots into manageable chunks and make them seem easily achievable. When I finally have a child to photograph, I can imagine myself flipping through this book, choosing a “recipe,” and taking great photos.

I recommend Koh’s book to any parent who feel intimidated by the idea of learning all of the settings on her camera but still wants to take professional looking shots of her kids. The book is more geared toward people with kids who are mobile (so, not newborns) but a lot of Koh’s advice seems applicable to baby photography, as well. I’ll let you know how it turns out in a few months!

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Book review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

I picked up Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs after seeing it at a beachside bookstore near my parents’ condo in Delaware. Despite where I purchased it, this book is definitely not what one could fairly label a “beach read.” It’s not light, or frothy, or inconsequential. It’s a book that makes you think, and makes you squirm. It’s suspenseful, despite being rather light on plot. It’s extremely well written. In other words, it’s well worth your time (even if you are reading it on the beach).

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The titular “woman upstairs” in the story is Nora Eldridge, a single woman in her late-thirties (when the story begins) who teaches third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nora’s life, when the story picks up, is consumed primarily by her duties as a teacher and daughter. She teaches, and when she’s not teaching, she’s visiting and taking care of her elderly father, who lives nearby. Although Nora went to art school, she’s long ago given up on pursuing art as a career, and instead makes art when she has time in the extra bedroom of her apartment. Everything changes for Nora, though, when a new student, Reza Shahid, enters her third grade classroom, and she soon becomes emotionally entangled with him and his family.

The Shahids have just moved to Cambridge from Paris and are attractive, glamorous, and worldly. Reza is an adorable scamp with beautiful gray eyes. Reza’s father, Skandar, is an academic who specializes in the ethics of history, and his mother, Sirena, is a professional artist who makes large, fanciful installations. Nora finds herself charmed by Reza, attracted to Skandar, and drawn like a magnet to Sirena. As the school year progresses, Nora becomes more and more involved with the Shahids: she begins to share studio space with Sirena (and consequently resumes thinking of herself as a real artist), she babysits Reza, she goes on long, winding walks with Skandar. Nora’s involvement with the Shahids shapes every aspect of her life, and animates her days. During the year she spends in the Shahids’ presence, Nora is the happiest she’s ever been, and when they move back to Paris, she feels lost. And later, she discovers a deep betrayal by the Shahids that leads her to question everything about her relationship with them.

The Woman Upstairs is interesting in that not a lot happens, plot-wise, but yet the story is hyper-engaging. This is a pretty neat trick for an author to pull off. Messud manages to build tension by layering small events on top of one another and diving deep into Nora’s inner thoughts and feelings as these seemingly mundane events unfold. Nora helps Sirena with her installation. She discusses Lebanese politics with Skandar. She tucks Reza into bed. On the surface, these might seem like commonplace interactions (albeit perhaps a bit inappropriate given that Nora is Reza’s teacher), but for Nora, these quotidien developments feel weighted with import. Messud builds Nora’s story in such a way that each interaction Nora shares with one of the Shahids contributes to a growing sense of unease, as we, the readers, wait for the other shoe to drop. And drop the other shoe does, quite spectacularly, late in the book.

What makes this book compulsively readable is Messud’s handling of Nora’s tangle of emotions — infatuation, anger, envy, jealousy, sadness — as the story progresses. As the narrator, Nora offers us a kind of double perspective, since she’s telling her own story with several years’ remove on the events. That is, while she can still relay the intense emotions and desires she experienced during her year with the Shahids, it seems she can also offer occasional glimpses of hard, cold perspective on the matter. But it becomes clear as the story unfolds that Nora is still very much caught up in her year with the Shahids, even many years later (and there’s good reason for that, as we learn). Messud allows Nora to tell her story in such an intimate way that her revelations often become uncomfortable for the reader. We’re both wrapped up in Nora’s private psychodrama and are able to step outside of it and see, quite clearly, how disastrously things are going to end for her. This is probably why it didn’t bother me that I was able to spot the development that would later drive a wedge between Nora and the Shahids as soon as it happened.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for those in the market for a masterfully written psychological drama. Check out what The New York Times had to say, too.

Book review: Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

It seems to me that recently, sociopaths have been enjoying a bit of time in the pop culture limelight. I was first turned on to the sociopath craze a few years ago when I listened to this This American Life episode, which was inspired by British journalist Jon Ronson’s excellent book of the same name, The Psychopath Test. After Al and I read The Psychopath Test, we both entered into a phase in which we frequently diagnosed people around us with sociopathy. We still do this occasionally, but it was a lot easier to sociopath-spot when I worked at a corporate law firm (a word on that later). But, having spent the last almost two years working for myself and choosing to surround myself with primarily non-sociopaths (aka “empaths”), I had sort of forgotten about sociopaths. Then, I received M.E. Thomas’s book, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, and was reminded, once again, of those pesky psychopaths wandering among us.

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Confessions of a Sociopath, as the title suggests, is a memoir written by a self-proclaimed (and supposedly clinically diagnosed) sociopath. M.E. Thomas is a pseudonym, but it didn’t take the internet long to figure out that the author of this book is actually (most probably) a woman named Jamie Rebecca Lund, a former law professor at St. Mary’s School of Law in Texas and then, before she was “outed” as a sociopath and subsequently fired, BYU. Lund didn’t help to keep her identity secret when she went on Dr. Phil in a bad wig and talked openly about her sociopathy (a move that led some to question whether she was in fact a sociopath or merely a narcissist). Indeed, in the paperback edition of her book, Thomas/Lund acknowledges that she has been “outed” and has lost her job as a law professor. All of this is to say that it’s unclear whether Thomas is actually a sociopath or merely an attention seeker who observed sociopathy’s rise in the zeitgeist and decided to cash in on it. As I read the book, it was impossible for me to decide one way or the other, so I decided to take Thomas at her word and assume that she is, in fact, a sociopath.

For those who haven’t done much reading on sociopathy, sociopaths (a term usually used interchangeably with the more loaded “psychopaths”) are people who suffer from a personality disorder that renders them unable to feel empathy and/or tap into a conscience. They know right from wrong, but they don’t feel right from wrong. Some sociopaths turn out to be violent criminals; others end up being wildly successful in business, law, medicine, and other fields in which the typical traits of sociopathy (ruthlessness, manipulation, charm, risk-taking, and lack of empathy) are advantageous. Thomas is one of the latter, a sociopath who has succeeded in her chosen field (law), has never been arrested, and who claims to live a full and happy life filled with friends and family. She attributes her success in large part to her strict Mormon upbringing, arguing that adherence to a set of external values (in this case, the ones set by her church) has helped keep her on the straight and narrow. Even though she doesn’t feel moral outrage, guilt, or compassion, she nonetheless adheres to the rules set by the church because they make sense, and they keep her in line.

Thomas divides the book into nine chapters, each of which discusses a different facet of sociopathy, which she backs up both with research and with anecdotes from her own life. She discusses, among other things, how sociopaths experience emotion, the impact of family life and upbringing on steering young sociopaths toward good or evil, how a sociopath might interact with an external moral or ethical code, and what sociopaths are like in romantic relationships. To me, the most interesting discussions were the ones focusing on Thomas’s religion (she remains a practicing Mormon) and her experience working in the law, particularly in corporate law (also known as BigLaw, a realm with which I am intimately familiar).

In explaining how she balances being a sociopath with being a Mormon, Thomas writes that because Mormons believe that “we are all sons and daughters of a loving God who only wants our eternal progression and happiness,” and that because all beings have the potential for salvation, she has concluded that only her actions matter, “not [her] emotional deficits, not [her] ruthless thoughts, and not [her] nefarious motivations.” She explains that Mormonism is “especially well suited” to her needs, “because its rules and standards are very explicit,” and following them has always helped her to blend in with everyone else. She argues that her lack of guilt is not a hindrance in practicing her religion; she says she follows the tenets of Mormonism simply because they tend to be rational and lead to good outcomes. “Rather than feeling a moral certainty about the rightness of the church and its articles of faith, my affiliation with the church makes sense to me in the language of efficiency,” she writes.

However, rather than following the letter of the church’s law, Thomas bends or interprets the rules as she sees fit. For example, she writes that the church only explicitly bans “pre-marital relations,” and she has interpreted this to mean that she can enjoy a full sex life, presumably as long as she refrains from intercourse (although this is not made explicit). In another chapter, she discusses her fluid sexuality and many sexual conquests of both men and women. So, it’s unclear to me how she squares her sexual behavior with the Mormon church’s rules, particularly when she claims to believe that only her actions matter with regard to her eventual salvation. Then again, Thomas is explicit about her reasons for being Mormon: it’s about efficiency, and getting ahead. So maybe these questions don’t matter to her that much.

Thomas’s discussion of her success as a lawyer was not surprising to me. In fact, it brought back a lot of memories from my time working in BigLaw, when I saw a lot of people seemingly devoid of empathy not only survive but thrive. Thomas’s observations about law school were also interesting:

Some of the most amoral and manipulative people I met in my life I knew in law school — rats who gamed the system with little regard for others at a level of meticulousness baffling even to me. They calculated every event or encounter to optimize their advantage, even when the advantages were so trivial as to mean having a slightly better breakfast. Many of them seemed capable of committing massacre, grand theft, or real destruction, had a sufficient motivating desire struck them to do so.

Thomas/Lund went to University of Chicago law school; my experience at Harvard was somewhat different. Most law students at Harvard are not manipulative, scheming rats, but are instead socially stunted, hyper-intelligent, neurotic head-cases. But there were some of the sociopathic schemers that Thomas describes in my class; they were just far fewer in number than the harmless nerds. Where I encountered the real sociopaths was at my law firm job. There’s a reason for this, Thomas argues; sociopathy actually helps lawyers to succeed:

The stereotypes about the bloodlessness of lawyers are true, at least about the good ones. Sympathy makes for bad lawyering, bad advocacy, and bad rule-making. … Working the slippery knot between right and wrong to my advantage is not only personally satisfying but has the additional benefit of being good lawyering…. And like all sociopaths, lawyers recognize the self-interest that hides in every heart, ferreting out the hidden motivations and dirty secrets that underlie criminal acts.

Reading the book made me glad, for the zillionth time, that I no longer practice law, and that my interactions with people like Thomas are consequently much reduced. By the end of the book, I was tired of her self-aggrandizing tone and stories of her own ruthlessness and seductiveness. Much of Thomas’s discussion of the study of sociopathy, particularly how it plays out in her professional and personal life, was interesting, but some of her anecdotes and conclusions struck me as inflated, as if she was trying too hard to prove her own sociopathy. Part of the problem with reading a firsthand account of sociopathy, it turns out, is that you have to listen to a sociopath drone on about herself for 300 pages.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in sociopaths and want to hear a firsthand account from a self-diagnosed (but possibly lying) sociopath, but wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already read The Psychopath Test, a superior and more entertaining book, in my estimation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Many people had mentioned Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to me before I read it. I had planning on reading it for what felt like a long time. And when I finally did get around to it, I wondered what had taken me so long to start. Once I picked up Americanah, I found that I could not put it down. It offered that rare combination of excellent writing, absorbing storytelling, and challenging content. Now, normally, I don’t read novels to be challenged, necessarily. I don’t go to any trouble to seek out books — particularly novels — that I think will make me feel uncomfortable. But Americanah often did make me feel uncomfortable, and it did challenge me. And I loved it.

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The novel follows its protagonist, smart and pretty Ifemelu, from Lagos to the East Coast of the United States and then back again, tracing her struggles and triumphs as she adjusts first to life in the United States and then to life in a changed Nigeria. Americanah (the title is taken from a Nigerian slang term for a Nigerian who has gone abroad and become Americanized) is about love, race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia. The love story happens between Ifem and her high school and early university boyfriend, contemplative, handsome Obinze. Ifem and Obinze’s stories intersect, separate, and then intersect again, across decades and continents, until Ifem makes the fateful decision to leave her comfortable American life (and black American boyfriend) and return to Nigeria.

The race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia aspects of the story are drawn in vivid detail as Ifem negotiates her life in the United States, first as a struggling international undergraduate student at a Philadelphia college, later as a successful race blogger, and finally as a disaffected fellow at Princeton. As Ifemelu is beginning to navigate her radically different life in the U.S., Obinze also departs Nigeria for the UK, where he works illegally and tries to land a green card marriage with an EU citizen before being deported. He then builds a highly successful life for himself back in Lagos, including marriage and a child.

Ifem and Obinze’s experiences abroad and back home, and the challenges they encounter as Nigerians in America and the UK, are parallel stories of people grappling with identity — racial, national, and individual — while seeking fulfillment and connections with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with those challenges. For Ifem, these struggles play out as she enters into relationships with Americans — both black and non-black — and tries to reconcile her identity as a Nigerian with her new identity as a black person in America. Some of the book’s most trenchant observations — and it is packed full of them — come as Ifemelu, a person who never considered herself black before leaving Nigeria, encounters America’s specific, prickly brand of racial politics. One of my favorite little scenes is when Ifemelu first arrives in Philadelphia and goes shopping with her high school friend Ginika, who has lived in the US much longer than she has. Two girls are working in the store: one black, and one white. The white girl helps Ginika.

At the checkout, the blond cashier asked, ‘Did anybody help you?’

‘Yes,’ Ginika said.

‘Chelcy or Jennifer?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.’ Ginika looked around, to point at her helper, but both young woman had disappeared into the fitting rooms at the back.

‘Was it the one with the long hair?’ the cashier asked.

‘Well, both of them had long hair.’

‘The one with dark hair?’

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission.’

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, ‘I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?” Why didn’t she just ask “Was it the black girl or the white girl?”‘

Ginika laughed. ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’

There are also plenty of sharp observations about the lives of Nigerians abroad, and the way they interact with each other. At one point, Ifemelu, by now a fellow at Princeton, is waiting in line for a taxi and anticipates the driver’s nationality with some trepidation.

Ifemelu joined the taxi line outside the station. She hoped her driver would not be a Nigerian, because he, once he heard her accent, would either be aggressively eager to tell her that he had a master’s degree, the taxi was a second job, and his daughter was on the dean’s list at Rutgers; or he would drive in sullen silence, giving her change and ignoring her ‘thank you,’ all the time nursing humiliation, that this fellow Nigerian, a small girl at that, who perhaps was a nurse of an accountant or even a doctor, was looking down on him. Nigerian taxi drivers in America were all convinced that they really were not taxi drivers. 

As Ifemelu becomes more familiar with the concept of race in America, she starts a blog in which she anonymously doles out observations from the perspective of a non-American black. One of those posts is titled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ As an American non-black myself, I found this post fascinating and challenging. For example, in the post, Ifemelu counsels the American non-black reader thusly:

Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews there is also the possibility of envy — they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews — and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy — they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.

When Ifemelu heads back to Lagos, however, she shudders her race blog and instead begins to blog about social issues in Nigeria. As she carves out a life for herself in a city that she once understood well, but in which she now feels a bit alien, she reconnects with Obinze, and their love story — complicated and fractured as it is — resumes. The resumption of their story feels both satisfying and frustrating, and the resolution (no spoilers!) is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Just like life.

I really loved this book. I want to read more of Adichie’s writing right away, and I highly recommend you do the same. In case you’re interested, here is an interview with Adichie on NPR.

(Crafting) book review: Petit Collage, by Lorena Siminovich

As a lady in her early thirties, I know a lot of people with babies or who are expecting babies, and it’s always nice to be able to present someone with a hand-made gift instead of something store-bought. As a knitter, I’ve made my share of baby hats and blankets, but I’d like to switch up my baby gift repertoire a little. One can only knit so many baby blankets before one is driven to distraction. Thus, I was so excited to get my hands on Lorena Siminovich’s Petit Collage, which promises “25 easy craft and decor projects” for homes with children and babies — and it did not disappoint! 

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Petit Collage is a design brand for nurseries and playrooms. I wasn’t familiar with it before I received this book, but their website is pretty charming. The book follows the same aesthetic of the website. Everything is, in a word, adorable. On top of that, as promised, the crafts included in the book seem doable. The author has designated three levels for the projects: easy, intermediate, and advanced, but even the advanced projects don’t require special skills. The “advanced” designation refers more to the time commitment involved in making the object.

Flipping through the book, I saw several projects that I could make for the (current and future) babies in my life: the paper mobile, the personalized baby plaque (made with templates included at the back of the book), the baby door tag, and the patterned letters, to name a few. The templates in the back of the book are handy and practical: they can be photocopied to desired size, cut out, and used immediately.

I also love the book’s emphasis on “reusing, repurposing, and recycling materials,” since, as an inveterate crafter, I have a million scraps of things lying around and I’m forever looking for opportunities to use them in new projects. I also liked that the book suggests non-crafting materials you can use for crafting, such as envelopes, notebook paper, and scrap paper. I have all of these things in my house and would love to be able to use them in creative ways.

Overall, I can’t wait to make some of the projects from Petit Collage. These crafts have the benefit of being both adorable and accessible. Highly recommended for crafty parents or crafty friends/family of parents looking to create unique, homemade gifts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

(Art) book review: The New Colored Pencil, by Kristy Ann Kutch

The New Colored Pencil is a beautiful looking book covering “the latest developments in color drawing media.” I’ve had it for a few weeks and was a bit intimidated to crack it since the drawings featured in its pages were so beautiful and appeared so advanced. But, since I have the kind of life in which I can take an hour or so out of my day to try out a new hobby, I decided today to open the book and test it out.The results were, um, mixed.

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This book markets itself as a guide to drawing with colored pencils, but it’s less of a step-by-step guide and more of a review of the latest materials, technologies, and techniques available. It runs through individual techniques such as sgraffito, burnishing, and line drawings, explaining in text how to achieve each effect and often showing an example of a completed drawing using the technique. However, the book does not demonstrate, step-by-step, how to do the techniques. For a colored pencil beginner like me, this lack of step-by-step instruction was a problem.

Nonetheless, I decided to read through the book and then attempt a drawing based on what I had read. I read “Part One: Wax-Based Traditional Colored Pencils” and understood everything I read theoretically, but when it came time to apply the techniques in practice, I found myself running into difficulties.

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First, I dutifully chose an object to draw (a red ceramic chicken I got in Lisbon), did a line drawing, and then began to fill in my drawing with color.

My line drawing

My line drawing

The end

The end

Turns out, this whole coloring-in bit is easier said than done, and I didn’t find the book’s guidance particularly enlightening. How, for example, was I to capture the light shining off of the chicken’s beak? I tried to color it in with white pencil but that looked weird. I tried to leave white space but that also looked weird. Clearly, I was doing something wrong, but the book offered no help. I had other questions, too: for example, was I supposed to erase the lines of my line drawing as I added color, or just color over the lines? Did I make my line drawing too dark? I had a lot of unanswered questions and my completed drawing looked kind of sad.

The problem for me was not the drawing: I’ve got that down. The problem was how to work with the pencils, which, as I understand it, is the entire point of the book. Perhaps the disconnect here is that this book is meant to be used by a much more experienced artist than I, someone who is already familiar with the techniques discussed and/or someone who could intuitively imagine them without instructional pictures. But if so, the book should probably make that clear (for example, a sub-heading stating that it’s a guide for the “experienced artist,” or something to that effect). There were a few step-by-step examples sprinkled throughout the book; for example, a two-page spread on how to do a line drawing based on a photo by using the “grid method” was helpful. I wish more of the book had been similarly instructional.

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On the positive side, the book is beautiful to look at and the descriptions are clear and well-written. It contains a lot of information about different supplies and options in the colored pencil world. It just wasn’t the book I wanted it to be.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review!