What I've been reading: spring 2016

What I have been reading, learning and thinking about in the last four months. Fiction, non-fiction, art books, and a movie.

I love doing these book lists because it gives me a clear idea of where I have spent my mental energy in the last four months. This time, I can see that I've spent a LOT of time reading self-improvement books around creativity, collaboration, and productivity. I wonder if I have anything to show for it... I've also noticed that the lists are getting longer and longer. I'm not sure if that's because I'm reading more or if it's that I'm more careful about choosing good books (and finishing them!) because I know I'll be writing about them later. Either way, here is a good long list of what I have been enjoying over the last four months.


All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

With a style touching on magical realism, a captivating story, and sweet, good-natured characters, this book hit me right in the feels. The character's speech was highly poetic, which pulled me out of the story occasionally but was so beautiful that I didn't mind. The novel follows two characters throughout the Second World War: a blind girl in Paris who has to evacuate with her father, and a radio-obsessed boy in Germany who goes to a military school to escape a life working in the mines. Woven between them is the story of a centuries-old diamond with a romantic back story. I often have a hard time with war stories, but—with a few exceptions—this one tended more toward the fanciful than the frightening, so it didn't stress me out too much.

Euphoria by Lily King

I bought this book at the Las Vegas airport with slot-machine winnings so it could have been terrible and I would have still been pleased. But it wasn't terrible, it was actually quite beautiful. Inspired by the stories of real-life anthropologist Margaret Mead, the book follows a married couple of anthropologists in the 1930s who are looking for a tribe to study along the Sepik River in New Guinea. Their guide is a fellow anthropologist who is having a hard time with his work and life and is relieved to find friends. What follows is described on the book jacket as "a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives." To me, it seemed much less a romantic thriller than a careful examination of early anthropology and colonialism.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This book seemed like it should have been a movie rather than a novel so I wasn't surprised to learn that Simsion initially wrote it as a screenplay. It's a very typically formulaic romantic comedy, with the sort of high jinks that would work perfectly on the big screen. The main character and male lead has Aspergers, which adds a certain amount of uniqueness, but not enough to make it feel like anything more than a cute, fun read. I enjoyed it, but don't think I'll bother with the sequel.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

I didn't enjoy reading a big chunk of this book, so I hesitated to include it on the list, but the second half was so interesting and touching that it (mostly) made up for it. In the first part, set in the early 20th century, a young man goes on a mission to a remote part of his country to find a sacred object. His uncle lends him a car that he doesn't know how to drive, and it turns into one of those situations where everything that can go wrong will. That, combined with the character's fear and ineptitude, had me feeling very anxious—which isn't what I look for in a book. What really grabbed me was the third section, where a Canadian senator forms an unlikely relationship with a chimpanzee and takes him to live in Portugal, in the same city that the first character was heading for. His relationship with the chimp is fascinating and delightful.


Make it Mighty Ugly: Exercises & Advice for Getting Creative Even When It Ain't Pretty by Kim Werker

Werker's belief is that by intentionally making ugly art, we can strip away the judgment and fear that art-making can induce and find our way to gleeful self-expression. And I would tend to agree. This book is full of interesting exercises to help you experiment and play.

The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You by Claire Walker Leslie

A lovely book filled with photographs, drawings, and snippets of poetry, this one celebrates the joy of exploring nature and learning more about it. Since this is turning into one of my greatest passions, I ate it right up.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

This is a dense but gorgeous memoir about a woman dealing with her father's death by retreating from humanity and training a hawk. It's one of those books that requires multiple readings to catch the nuances and details, and to absorb the overarching themes. You can read a detailed review of it here, which is where I first heard about it.

Creativity Inc.:Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Edwin Catmull

At the top of many creative "must-read" lists, this book is geared more towards managers and those working in organizations. Still, it's interesting because it offers an inside look at the Pixar movie studio and if you love their movies as much as I do then it's worth it for those alone. A lot of what is intended to be used in a collaborative setting can also be applied to those of us working on a smaller scale—there were a few passages on how to make creativity thrive that really grabbed me.

The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together by Twyla Tharp

I love Tharp's previous book, The Creative Habit, which is a manual for approaching creativity with discipline and dedication. This book was less prescriptive and more just a compilation of stories about her various collaborations with dancers, choreographers and musicians over the years. She's had a wide-reaching career and worked with some huge names so the stories were captivating, though I would say the practical takeaways were fewer.

The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

Bailey decided to spend a year studying productivity and doing a series of experiments to determine how to be the most productive that he could: experiments like meditating for 30 hours/week or only using his smartphone for an hour a day. These are interesting in and of themselves, though the lessons he pulls out of them seem quite useful. I didn't love the writing, but that wasn't the point of the book and was easy to get past.

The Way of the Happy Woman: Living the Best Year of Your Life by Sara Avant Stover

I've been reading a chapter of this every night before bed to help calm me down at night and enjoying it a lot. Avaunt-Stoker splits up the year by season and shares her strategies for living your best life in each one. Based on Ayurvedic and Buddhist principles, the book offers seasonal recipes, yoga routines, meditations, reflections, and so much more. I cringe a bit when she says that I should eat more black foods in winter because they're good for my liver, but otherwise I've found a lot of wisdom for building routines around nature's cycles.

Art Books

Pharos Gate: Griffin & Sabine's Lost Correspondence by Nick Bantock

I couldn't believe it when I saw that there was a seventh book in the Griffin and Sabine series. These books that sparked so much joy and wonder in me as a child, that helped set me off on my creative journey, are some of my all-time favourite possessions. I bought the book (which you know makes it very special since almost every other book on this list was borrowed from the library) and devoured it immediately. I was not disappointed. The story was left as a mystery after the sixth book and this one laid everything out plainly. Some might be annoyed by such neat tying up of loose ends but I was thrilled to meet with the beloved characters one last time. If you haven't experienced this series you absolutely must.

In the City by Nigel Peake

The drawings in this book reminded me a lot of assignments from the science section of my Drawing Project. Peake takes a fascinating look at the elements that make up a city and represents them in colourful diagram-like drawings that are both informative and expressive at the same time. It was very pleasing to flip through and think about how I might make similar drawings in my own city.


Hector and the Search for Happiness

This was really fun, so I thought I would include it on the list. Simon Pegg plays a psychiatrist who realizes that he is unable to help his patients be happy because he doesn't understand happiness. He impulsively takes off on an adventure through China, Africa, and Los Angeles, trying to understand what happiness is and taking notes and making sketches the whole time. It's very light-hearted and had me laughing out loud at several points.

What are you reading right now? Leave a comment below!