January 2014 archive

One Minute Critique: Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

| One Minute Critique, One Minute Critique Books, Uncategorized

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Are you fascinated by the creative process? Do you hunt out the ‘a day in a life’ features on authors, musicians and artists? I do! I do! I’ve always been enthralled by how others work. It’s part validation – Voltaire wrote in bed, I write in bed, it’s okay I write in bed! And part inspiration – perhaps somewhere in the minutiae of the daily grind of the great creatives is the key to joining their ranks? Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, by Mason Currey is a dream for those like me who are obsessed by process.

In an expansion of what started as a blog, Currey details the charming, the amusing, and the sometime terrifying schedules of a whole host of composers, writers, and artists. Take Balzac, who ate at 6pm, went to sleep till 1am, rose, worked for seven hours, took a ninety minute nap, worked again for a further six and half hours and then took a bath, went for a walk and started the whole process up again. Exhausting.

I bought this book because as well as being fascinated by other’s working routines, I was also trying to reshape mine. Wrestling with the limitations of my health due to EDS III, I find myself going against the grain and designing a new way of working. As well as providing many pleasant distractions and dinner party anecdotes, this book has aided my focus on my own routine. There is something reassuring and reinforcing about reading a couple of daily schedules before launching your own. A great present for the creatives in your life, or anyone who is interested in how creatives lived and worked.

Daily Rituals, Mason Currey: ritually enjoyable 4/5. 

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One Minute Critique: The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie Smith

| New Year Resolution: A book a week, One Minute Critique, One Minute Critique Books

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I love a small book. The recent popularity of doorstop tomes, which piggybacked in on the coattails of talented writers like Mantel and Catton, has seen a number of verbose and flaccid bricks lolloped onto the market, when, really, they could have benefited from a decent edit. Not so with Smith. The Embassy of Cambodia is a master class in tight, compact fiction, where far more is revealed than the 69 pages might imply.

It tells the story of Fatou, a West African migrant, who has escaped one hell, and found herself in a purgatory: caught between freedom and imprisonment. The story is set in Willesden, a part of London Smith is personally familiar with and has taken her readers too before. There is also the reoccurrence of a pompous male character, who could represent a love interest, except our heroine appears indifferent to him. And there is a familiar motif of escapism, in this case swimming. Fatou struggling up and down the pool of her employers’ fancy gym in her black underwear. Is Smith playing with us with these accustomed echoes? Is this an ironic meta element to her work? Or merely a repetition of tried and tested ideas? Whether it is any, all, or none of these it works for me. The Embassy of Cambodia is small enough to enjoy in one sitting, but big enough to stay with you long after.

Smith’s writing evokes a sensory experience that brings Fatou, and her world, to life. She gives voice to a character that is often not heard by wider society. You might have walked past Fatou on the street, or swum past her in the pool; don’t miss her story.

The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith: A perfectly formed 4/5

 

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One Minute Critique: The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, by Olivia Laing

| New Year Resolution: A book a week, One Minute Critique, One Minute Critique Books

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Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an in-depth investigation of the relationship between writers and alcohol. Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, and laces her own unsettling memories among her exploration of six alcoholic writers, as she wends her way, literally, across their American landscape: John Cheever’s New York, Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans, Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, Raymond Carver’s Port Angeles. In an act of self-preservation she selects only male alcoholic writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Berryman are included), as female alcoholics are too close to home.

This multi-layered exploration of the horrors of alcoholism quickly disperses any notion of romance when it comes to creative genius and intoxicated exuberance. The destructive angry hurt alcohol leaves strewn across the pages had me struggling to comprehend how Laing herself was able to enjoy a drink at various points on her journey: it quite put me off my wine.

The Trip to Echo Spring (or Echo Falls as I kept awfully, ironically miscalling it) was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Biography Award. Laing’s discriminating descriptions of the American landscape are light and poetic, her prose sculpted and erudite, her research thorough and weighty. This is a beautifully written journey through land, time and the bottle. More than a mere biography – though there is plenty of meaty detail of the writer’s lives, loves and losses – it is an exploration of addiction and the darker things that drive and threaten to tear us apart. It drove me to previously undiscovered texts and to revisit old favourites, armed with new insight.

This book will satiate those who enjoy reading about their literary idols. But Laing provides more than hero worship for other readers – she delivers a text that offers a greater comprehension of human nature: what drives us, what can destroy us, and ultimately what can redeem us. Like a hangover lingers after you finish your final glass, this book will stay with you long after you’ve digested the final page.

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, Olivia Laing: An addictive 5/5

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Writing: Lessons from the past

| Writing

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My current pinboard – for inspiration & plot planning

Today I set out to get my study back into workable shape following its brief metamorphosis into a Christmas spare bedroom (sorry about all the books, and the inflatable bed, little brother). Whilst hoiking furniture round I unearthed a small pinboard I hadn’t seen for a while (see above for my current gargantuan school classroom size one, which I use for inspiration and visual plot planning).

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This little pinpricked beauty (to the left) used to be propped behind my £19 shaky Argos desk in the second bedroom of our London flat, when I first quit my job in fashion and decided to pursue a writing career. My husband and I cobbled together a financial plan and agreed I could take a year out to give it a shot. At the one year mark, and seemingly no closer to realising my dream, I took a part time job to keep funding my writing.

 

Many, many, many, many people thought I was nuts, and there were certainly times when I, exhausted from hours of unpaid typing, reading, studying, and trying to learn my craft, thought I was nuts too. We moved out to Hertfordshire, and I gained a room of my own: a study, with a huge vintage school desk, and the huge school pin board. And I got there. I got an agent, a book deal, and a number of articles published in newspapers and magazines. Somewhere along the way that little pinboard got tucked away, saved for another occasion. I’d forgotten its very existence until today. Along the top I’ve written (in my dreadful handwriting):

 

‘Ne pas oser, c’est ne rien faire qui vaille’

– Without daring, nothing is achieved

 

I believe it’s by Napoleon Bonaparte. My past self was brave and wise to write that. Sometimes in life you have to jump. As I look back at 2013, the year my first book was published, but also the year I lost 6 months to a chronic health condition that saw me unable to type and fearing the repercussions if I did, I realise it’s time to be brave again. I have to jump. I have to try. I’ve typed up the quote, printed it out and stuck it once more to my current pinboard.

Wishing us all a happy, and daring 2014.

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