on my nightstand

Books are full of stories, and not just the one between their covers. There is the origin story, the initial spark that becomes a full-fledged book; there is the story of how it comes into existence — the process; and the various stories that connect the book with individual readers.

Today’s list is as much about the stories connecting me to each book as it is about the book itself.

Here by Richard McGuire

Here by Richard McGuire

I have recently come to a realization: Despite the fact that most of my friends are fellow bookworms, only a few actually recommend books to me. As someone who gushes about the books I love (and just as happily debates books I am ambivalent toward), I find that rather odd. Friends may mention books in passing, maybe even praise them, but they rarely encourage me to read these books.

I, on the other hand, not only recommend books to anyone who will listen, I often pass along books I’m done with, sometimes in person, sometimes via post, to friends whom I think will enjoy them. What better way to pique someone’s interest than to put a physical copy in their hands?

At the beginning of the summer, I visited my friend Jonathan in New York, and books are always a part of our conversations. At some point, he started pulling books off his shelves to show me. He even pulled out his iPad, showed me some recent favorites, and put the iPad in my hands, saying “You could probably finish reading this tonight.” I was too tired to finish reading anything that evening, but I did request several titles to pick up from the library upon my return home. One of them was Here by Richard McGuire.

Here is a graphic novel, and each spread is a snapshot of the same location, from the same angle. Time is the defining element in these snapshots. Most spreads are a composite of many different moments, as if layers of time have been peeled away, showing what had transpired here two years or two decades ago, two centuries or even further back in history. People crying, laughing, things breaking, being built, parties in full swing, and lonely figures by themselves. This space has seen the full spectrum of humanity, the mundane and the monumental.

Paging through Here makes me think of this beautiful phrase from Craig Mod’s essay “A Need to Walk.”

“the synchronicity of our footsteps separated only by the folding of time”

There are plenty of places that make me pause and peel back the layers of time in my head, revisiting the memories that exist within that space. Sometimes I think about the unknown people who have come before me and those who will come after me, of how our lives are intertwined by space but separated by time. I love places with a strong sense of history, and perhaps it’s because I can sense those footsteps that transcend time to echo in the present.

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The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Richmond

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond

My sister is friends with the Unconventional Librarian (a.k.a. Pam), and that is how I came to join her Diversity Reading Challenge last year. As readers, we tend to gravitate toward the same kinds of books, and I saw the challenge as an opportunity for exploration. I also started reading the Lee and Low blog and following the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and I realized how important it is to seek out books by diverse authors who are writing stories about underrepresented communities.

In the conversation about diversity in publishing, there are two concepts that frequently come up: mirrors and windows. Mirrors because we all need to see ourselves reflected in the stories we read. Windows because reading the stories of those different from us cultivates empathy.

Since the Diversity Reading Challenge, I have continued to challenge myself to read more broadly. Part of that challenge is finding diverse books that also fall within my interests. Life is short, and I am not going to dedicate time to books that add no value to my life, whether that be entertainment, enrichment, or some other value.

We Need Diverse Books often publishes reading lists, but while perusing the WNDB website recently, I realized it also contains a less obvious reading list. Many of the WNDB team members are also authors so I started investigating the books they had written, which led me to The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Richmond, WNDB Assistant Treasurer.

The Only Thing to Fear is about an alternate reality in which the Axis powers won World War II, and the United States has been divided in half, with the western half controlled by Japan and the eastern half by Germany. In this version, the medical experiments by the Nazis and the Japanese have successfully produced humans with superpowers, whom they call Anomalies. Eighty years after the war, the Axis powers utilize Anomalies to help maintain their control over the territories.

The protagonist Zara is an American girl of mixed heritage. She is half Japanese, shunned by fellow Americans for being tainted by enemy blood and shunned by the Germans because she is not only American but also of impure stock. Zara’s mother and uncle are both members of the Alliance, a rebel organization working to overthrow Nazi rule, and this is the story of how Zara becomes a pivotal part of the revolution.

The Only Thing to Fear is an interesting reimagining of the world, and its themes of racism, stereotypes, and assumptions are timeless.

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How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Once upon a time, the only thing I knew about Baratunde Thurston was that he was the author of a humorous yet profound monthly column for Fast Company about technology and culture. I always enjoyed these articles, and it was through one of these that I learned that he was a co-founder and co-discussant of the podcast About Race: Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race. I started listening to the podcast (Highly recommended. Currently on hiatus but I hear they’ll be returning soon!) and discovered other facts about Baratunde: 1. He’s a comedian; 2. He formerly worked for The Onion; 3. He wrote a book called How to Be Black.

How to Be Black is part memoir and part exploration of race and identity. Baratunde is a comedian so even though it’s a serious topic, it’s funny! There’s no way I can truly understand what it’s like to be black in America, but as a person of color, I can definitely relate to some of these experiences (e.g. tokenism, being the only POC in the room, etc.). There are moments I find myself cringing and laughing at the same time. Yup, definitely been there.

I’m actually listening to the audiobook, and it is Baratunde himself reading, which makes it even better (I love listening to authors read their own books). Baratunde also recruited a panel, to whom he poses various questions about their take on race and identity, so that there are multiple perspectives. I really appreciate having these additional voices because in conversations about race and identity, there can be a tendency to refer to the collective without acknowledging the individual (and oftentimes, very different) experiences of people within that community.

How to Be Black is a great read (listen, in my case); it’s funny and insightful. And if you’re curious about Baratunde’s work as a comedian and a technologist, there’s a recent interview with him by the U.S. Digital Service, which includes a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his work as a producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

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Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet

I have a confession: I bought this book because it has a lovely design (design matters!). And because it is small, slim, and portable. I love books that I can easily slip into a bag or purse. I occasionally read ebooks on my phone while I’m out and about, but it’s just not the same as having a physical book in my hands. The re-emergence of the “book shot” thrills me. These are small, “single-sitting” books that can be read in a shorter period of time. (There’s a great article in The Atlantic about e-readers, book shots, and anthologies.) I noticed a proliferation of book shots when I was in London, but I haven’t seen very many here — yet.

Not that Romeo and Juliet falls in this category, but the size of this particular edition reminds me of book shots. Last year, I decided that I would read one Shakespeare play a year, and I started with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This year is Romeo and Juliet. It’s the only Shakespeare play that I have read before in its entirety, and that’s only because it was part of my high school freshman curriculum. I think we were supposed to read a different Shakespeare play each year, but Shakespeare did not make it into my English classroom any other year.

The work of Shakespeare permeates so many facets of our culture so it’s good to be familiar with the canon. I’m almost done reading Romeo and Juliet, and next year I’m thinking of choosing a Shakespeare play that I know absolutely nothing about. Thus, my education continues.

curiosity and creative process

knitting in the studio

My creative process, whether I’m working on art or knitwear design, has remained fairly consistent throughout the years, but the way I think about it continues to evolve. So when Knit Purl, a yarn shop in Portland, Oregon, invited me to discuss my design work and inspiration on their blog, I enjoyed the opportunity to take a step back and re-examine my thoughts about creativity and process.

As I continue to grow as a person and as an artist, my vocabulary – both words and ideas – has also expanded, and that has enabled me to understand my process better and to be more specific in how I describe it. Recently, “curiosity” has been a big keyword in this vocabulary, and looking at creative process through the lens of curiosity brings the picture into much sharper focus than the lens of inspiration ever has.

My post for Knit Purl is the story of how my life has been shaped by curiosity and how that curiosity leads to creative work.

reading rebecca solnit

In March, I landed at Heathrow for the first time. Unable to sleep during the transatlantic flight, I was nevertheless energized and alert, stimulated by a sense of arrival and discovery. I followed the signs for customs at a leisurely pace, observing the people passing ahead of me – the woman in a bright red wool coat, the man with a professional video camera hanging from one hand, a mother-daughter pair.

My flight landed around eight in the morning, and the queue at customs was moving at a rather acceptable pace. As we wound our way back and forth like a human snake, I took the opportunity to inspect my fellow travelers. There were people from my flight as well as a few who had passed me on the way to customs. I listened for different languages and glanced at the passports clutched in those hands, curious about where these travelers had come from and where they were headed.

Some were chatting with their companions, some were communing with their phones, and I saw two men who were reading books, of the physical, paper variety. The one ahead of me was too far away – I couldn’t see the title of the hardcover in his hand. The other guy was mostly two lanes behind, but the zigzag of the line occasionally brought us within handshaking proximity. Tall, checkered, buttoned-up shirt and jeans, backpack over one shoulder, small bag by his side. He was reading a book by Rebecca Solnit.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

His face was so serious, in a way that makes you think twice about approaching someone. But he was reading Rebecca Solnit! And it was a book that I had not yet read, The Faraway Nearby. So the next time he passed me, I rudely interrupted his reading and asked him if it was a good book. His face immediately lit up – big smile, sparkle in the eyes. I forget his exact words, but it was something along the lines of “really great writing.” We had a brief exchange and then went back to being strangers.

Like any bibliophile, this exchange brought me ridiculous satisfaction: We like the same writer! We agree she’s brilliant! I had recently finished Men Explain Things to Me before my trip and had come to the same conclusion – this is great thinking translated into great writing.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit has written about diverse topics, including identity, storytelling, walking, and more. Men Explain Things to Me is a collection of essays that underscores the necessity of feminism. She illustrates her points with news stories, statistics, and research, many of which I have already come across before. However, Solnit connects the dots in such a way that her message is powerful: all the violence against women, the misogyny, and the oppression – these are not isolated incidents sprinkled across society, they are a recurring symptom of a broken system.

From the title essay:

“The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women – of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human….

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.”

The collection of seven essays is great as a whole, but I believe many of them are also available online. The title essay “Men Explain Things to Me” was originally published online at TomDispatch in 2008 and is still accessible.

I have reread a few of the essays and feel like I need to acquire my own copy, to place alongside a copy of We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a slim volume based on her TED talk. Whereas Solnit’s essays are very sobering, Adichie brings a lightheartedness to a very serious topic. I had to laugh when Adichie said that she had to explain to people that she is a “happy, African feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for herself but not for men.” Too often, people shy away from claiming the word “feminist.” Adichie points out that you don’t have to be an angry, anti-feminine, man-hating woman to be a feminist, and that we can all be and should be feminists.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As it so happens, I first encountered Adichie’s feminist manifesto in London, while browsing the shelves of the Foyles flagship store. And two months after returning from my UK adventure, I’ve finally picked up a copy of The Faraway Nearby. Just like my stranger in the airport said, it’s really great writing. A very different read from Men Explain Things to Me, but it’s the same kind of beautiful and thought-provoking writing.

a knitter’s journey to the united kingdom

The Little Grey Sheep EYF

I decided to visit the United Kingdom for several reasons, but I’ll admit it – I timed my trip so that I could attend the third annual Edinburgh Yarn Festival. My first ever trip to England and Scotland was everything a foray into new territory should be: inspiring, a bit bewildering, and socially, culturally, and personally edifying.

But that is another train of thought. Let’s get back to the festival and my knitting-centric journey. I started my trip in London, where I did many lovely things unrelated to knitting and fiber, but on the day I arrived – slightly incoherent and delirious from being up for almost twenty-four hours – Loop was my first stop after a fortifying lunch of meat pie, roasties, and gravy.

Loop London

About two blocks from Loop, I ran across Sophie Scott of Pomcast, who correctly surmised my destination from the knitwear I was swathed in (March in London is cold!) and offered to rescue me from my consultation of Google Maps. However, my sleep-deprived brain did not quite register that uniquely familiar voice until she walked into Loop a few minutes after me (the delay due to the fact that I had declined her gallant offer of assistance – I’m quite good at reading maps). Of course, I introduced myself. And I bought three skeins of Orkney Angora St. Magnus DK, which is used in the beautiful Stephen West shawl designed for the tenth anniversary celebration of Loop.

While in London, I also met with Lydia Gluck, one of the co-founders of Pom Pom Quarterly. Having published a design with Pom Pom last year, Lydia and I have an established correspondence, and it was wonderful to finally meet her in person. Meeting people in real life is more than just putting a face to the name (you could do that with photos); it’s also about getting a feel for their aura. I know that sounds hokey, but being in someone’s living, breathing, thinking presence informs you so much more about that person that mere words on paper (or a screen) can. Besides the usual knitterly conversation, we rambled through city streets and into discussions of politics (Trump and Brexit, for starters) and personal reading habits. And Lydia introduced me to my first English pub!

After London, I traveled by rail to Bath to visit my friend Kelly, and we made the trip to Edinburgh together. On the morning of day one of the Edinburgh Yarn Festival, Kelly and I decided to catch the public bus to the Corn Exchange, the main venue of the festival. To my surprise, the bus driver greets me by asking, “Are you going to the Corn Exchange?” Are Edinburgh bus drivers mind readers? I quietly puzzled until I turned around – the entire bus was filled with knitters, easily identified by their colorful, fantastical, squishy, obviously hand-knitted attire. We were all going to the Corn Exchange.

The bus deposited us right around ten o’clock, the time festival doors open. And oh my goodness. The entry line already wrapped around the block! Knitters (yarnies, fiber enthusiasts – whatever you want to call them) are a dedicated bunch. Obsessive even. Lots of British folks of course, but also some from across the pond (such as myself) and others from the continent. EYF is British at heart, but its appeal is international.

Photo by Kelly O'Brien.

Photo by Kelly O’Brien.

There was a large focus on British wool and yarn production at the festival, which is a major reason why I wanted to attend. Where else would I find yarns made from Gotland, Wensleydale, Masham, Hebridean fleeces, and more, all in one place? And know that I am supporting small businesses that are working hard to farm and produce yarn responsibly while preserving local resources and traditions? This is perhaps partly why EYF, though only in its third year, has become so wildly popular. It is a great place for meeting the people who are raising the sheep, milling the fiber, and dyeing the yarn. And it’s a great place if you care about provenance, sustainability, and small business.

During the two days of the festival, I visited many vendors and talked to many people. I absolutely loved hearing the stories of all these extremely passionate people. Below are some highlights.

My first stop was the Blacker Yarns stall. Blacker Yarns is produced by The Natural Fibre Company, a wool mill in Cornwall that also processes fiber and spins yarns for customers. Blacker Yarns has limited distribution in the US so this was my chance to squish all their yarns in person! Blacker Yarns is committed to provenance and highlighting rare and endangered British breeds. From their brochure:

“The fibre we use is British. If you get in touch we can tell where the fleece used in each batch of yarn was raised… Our range of breed specific yarn is available in both dyed and natural shades… We also offer a selection of limited edition British breed yarns. Due to rarity these come and go, much like a guest ale.”

My haul from Blacker Yarns: four skeins of their newest yarn Tamar, which is a blend of endangered luster breeds with local Cornish Mule. I’m particularly fond of yellow-greens and mustards and every hue in between, and this color is perfect.

Blacker Yarns Tamar

Next stop: John Arbon Textiles, another small scale mill that also produces its own line of yarns. I purchased some very special Devon Grey Wensleydale, a limited edition undyed single farm, single breed yarn. As much as I love color, I really love undyed yarns too – it makes me feel more connected to the sheep! This yarn even smells like (clean) sheep!

John Arbon Textiles Devon Grey Wensleydale

John Arbon Textiles also spun a very special debut yarn, Daughter of a Shepherd, for Rachel Atkinson. I stopped by her stand to meet and chat with Rachel about her new yarn, which is incredible in so many ways. Rachel used the fleeces from her father’s flock of Hebridean sheep, which the British Wool Marketing Board basically declared worthless, to create this beautiful undyed yarn. I love the tag, which lists the shepherd’s name (her father) as well as the date of the clip. Read the story of this yarn and learn a bit about the British wool industry on Rachel’s blog or in her interview with Knit British.

Rachel Atkinson Daughter of a Shepherd

An unexpected discovery (of many): The Little Grey Sheep. Emma Boyles has a small family farm in Surrey, her sheep is sheared by Susie (shearers are awesome – check out this interview with shearer Matt Gilbert on the Woolful podcast), the fleeces are washed in Yorkshire, spun in Devon, and then hand dyed by Emma on her farm.

To be honest, as lovely as they are, I’ve been a bit wary of hand dyed yarns. I’ve had one too many skeins that have not been properly fixed, and the never-ending bleeding drives me nuts. But! Emma took the time to share some tips with me about how to fix dye at home. And she told me to send any yarn that wasn’t properly fixed back to her to be rectified. How could I resist buying yarn from someone who takes such pride in and ownership of her work? And thus some Gotland double knit came home with me. I’m confident I won’t need to send this skein back, and now I have some tricks to tackle those pesky skeins in my stash.

The Little Grey Sheep Gotland DK

The past year also gave rise to a crop of yarns produced by knitwear designers, including Blend No. 1 by Ysolda Teague (spun by John Arbon Textiles) and Buachaille by Kate Davies. (Rachel Atkinson, mentioned above, is also a designer.) I am (slightly) regretting not picking up any of Ysolda’s yarn, but my luggage for my whirlwind UK tour consisted of exactly one carry-on bag and one small backpack. I only managed to bring back as much as I did because I lived in a total of three outfits during those two weeks!

I did, however, acquire two skeins of Buachaille, the only worsted weight yarn I picked up during my trip. It’s 100% Scottish wool, and Kate has a wonderful behind-the-scenes post about the making of the yarn on her blog.

Kate Davies Buachaille

Besides the yarn, meeting the designers was part of the fun of Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I did not take any classes, but I did get to chat with some of the fabulous designers present, one being Stephen West. The only scarf/shawl/wrap I brought with me for the trip was knitted from Stephen’s Lumpy Space shawl design. When he wasn’t being mobbed by fans (ahem), I grabbed a quick photo with Stephen. This shawl has quickly become my favorite neckwear – fantastic, no?

Stephen West and me at Edinburgh Yarn Festival

Stephen West and me at Edinburgh Yarn Festival. Photo by Kelly O’Brien.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Di Gilpin, whose designs always incorporate amazing details. She and her team also collaborate with various fashion houses. I was never a vest person until I met the Arabesque vest by Di – I’m hoping to knit it this year. Di was also showcasing a new design, the Oak sweater, and she had a sweater-in-progress to demonstrate how the tricky-looking back detailing is done. Gasp-worthy!

Di Gilpin's in-progress Oak Sweater

Di Gilpin’s in-progress Oak Sweater.

Of course, I stopped to say hello (again) to the Pom Pom ladies. This time I also got to meet Amy!

Me, Amy and Lydia. Photograph by Kelly O'Brien.

Me, Amy (sporting the Pianissimo scarf) and Lydia. Photo by Kelly O’Brien.

And I paid my compliments to Verity and company at Baa Ram Ewe, the Leeds yarn shop that also has its own line of British yarns, Dovestone and Titus. Dovestone was used in my Pianissimo scarf design for Pom Pom, and it is lovely to knit with!

That's Verity in the center!

Look at those colors!

The number of people at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival was incredible and overwhelming. I found it impossible to spend the entire day there in the crush of people, and besides, it was a lot of inspiration and information to process – much like how I feel when viewing amazing exhibitions at museums. I wish I could have talked with more people, hear more stories, squish more yarn. I suppose I’ll just have to make another trip to the UK!

plant drawings

Hydrangea

In another lifetime, I would have been a botanist (in other lifetimes, I would have been many things). I have always loved studying plants, and one of the best ways to study plants is to draw them, as evident by the strong tradition of botanical illustration. Drawing is a form of seeing because to truly capture the likeness of a thing, you have to observe the details carefully. Whether those details are added to the drawing or omitted, you have to notice them first before making that decision. The curve of the stem, the angle of the leaf, the number of petals, the shape of the stamen, the texture of the bark, and so on.

Despite my long fascination with plants, I’m fairly mediocre when it comes to identification. The only time I’ve really made an effort to learn the names of plants was during the three years I lived in Japan. I lived in a small town, and for the most part, I walked everywhere. My commute to work, trips to the shops, and random ambling afforded me plenty of opportunities to note what was growing along the sides of the road and in people’s gardens. This may have been the only time I’ve truly been attuned to the seasons, especially since Japan imports little produce and what you see at the grocer’s reflects what is being harvested at the time.

A friend had gifted me with a handmade leather-bound, pocket-sized sketchbook that I sometimes carried with me during my strolls. There are a few sketches of the odd scene or landscape, but it’s mostly filled with small drawings of the plants I saw day after day, year after year.

Morning Glory

Morning Glory

Cyclamen

Cyclamen

Dandelion

Dandelion

Hydrangea

Hydrangea

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Nandina

Nandina

Until just now, when I looked it up, I didn’t know the English name for nandina. It was a plant I learned to identify while living in Japan, and I only ever knew it as nanten.

Leafing through the sketchbook, it reminded me of one of my favorite artists, Ellsworth Kelly. Most people know Kelly, who passed away in December, for his abstract paintings, but the work I love most are his plant drawings. Many of them are simple; some are just contours. There is a beauty to the line and compositions of these drawings, and even though they may be devoid of detail, there is a quality of truth to them, as if Kelly has somehow captured the essence of the plant.

Ellsworth Kelly_Four Sunflowers

Ellsworth Kelly, Four Sunflowers, 1957

The drawing above is one of many included in the book Plant Drawings, a selection of drawings done by Kelly between 1948 and 2010. It’s a lovely book with beautiful reproductions and includes a great interview with Kelly. However, I’ve had the good fortune of seeing many of Kelly’s plant drawings at an exhibition, and they are even more spectacular in person. Many of these drawings are very large, anywhere from two to four feet, sometimes more. To see the drawings at that scale, the plants life-size and sometimes larger, is to experience them differently.

Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings

Since I don’t have thousands of dollars to spare, I’ve been noodling around the internet to see if I can find at scale reproductions of Kelly’s plant drawings. Alas, that quest has been fruitless so far. How amazing it would be to be able to contemplate one of these drawings every day.

Margaret Stones Flora of Louisiana

I also love the botanical drawings of Margaret Stones, which illustrate the plant in as much detail as possible. In 1976, Louisiana State University commissioned the Australian artist to create six watercolor drawings to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial, which eventually expanded to include over 200 drawings and came to be known as the Native Flora of Louisiana project. Many of these drawings have been published in the book Flora of Louisiana and can also be viewed online as part of the LSU Libraries Digital Collection.

Margaret Stones, Hairy Spiderwort

Margaret Stones, Hairy Spiderwort

In many of Stones’ drawings, there are multiple renderings of the same specimen, including cross sections of stems and close ups of blossoms. The thoroughness of her illustrations and the attention to detail is wonderful. I especially love the tiny annotations indicating how much a specific part of the plant has been enlarged. I have also seen Stones’ work in person, and that is another experience that I cherish.

Margaret Stones, Sassafras

Margaret Stones, Sassafras

Revisiting all of this makes me want to go back out with a sketchbook in hand, even if it’s just to the backyard. There are certainly plenty of plants awaiting there, and with the change of seasons around the corner, plenty of growth to witness.

on my nightstand

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

I love, love, love nonfiction, but if I could only read one genre for the rest of my life I would likely choose literary fiction. Maisie Dobbs probably qualifies as popular fiction, not literary fiction, but the point is that I love fiction. I always try to have at least one fiction novel in rotation to balance all the nonfiction I read.

Maisie Dobbs is a mystery series, and to be honest I was expecting a fun, fluffy read. To my surprise and delight, there is meat on the bones here. The protagonist Maisie is similar to Sherlock Holmes in her use of keen observation and smart questions to uncover the truth, and sprinkled throughout the book are astute observations about human nature that add a depth to the story and my reading experience that I quite appreciate. Set between the World Wars in London and its environs, I also like how the city itself is a character in the book.

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White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Another book set in London, but a London very different from the world of Maisie Dobbs. The story begins in 1975 and follows two middle-aged war veterans who are still trying to find their place in the world: Archie Jones and his best friend Samad Iqbal, a Muslim Bengali. I’m not very far into White Teeth yet, but the two wives show promise of being an equally compelling part of the narrative. Currently, what shines the most is Smith’s craft of language.

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Olives

Olives by A.E. Stallings

Ever since I read Olives, the first poem in this collection, I was hooked. I love poetry with rhythm and rhyme, and there aren’t too many contemporary poets who do it consistently well (if you have any favorites, I’d love to know). Stallings illustrates age-old, universal themes using modern imagery and beautiful language. I’m revisiting the poems here, and I’m sure I’ll continue to throughout the years.

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Just My Type

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

As an artist and a design geek, how can I not be attracted to a book about typefaces? Just My Type has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, and I am only now getting around to reading it. I’ve only read the introduction so far, but the writing is engaging so I’m looking forward to diving into this book. I have never formally studied typography so this should be a fun edification.

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Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A sobering read. A heartbreaking read. A must read. A blunt look at ideas of race and equality that are defined by a broken system, Coates demonstrates how devastating the effect is on individual lives. It’s a powerful and provocative read. I’m reading this a few pages at a time because digestion and reflection are definitely necessary.

If you’re interested in Coates’ creative process there is a great Longform podcast in which he discusses his journey as a writer and working on Between the World and Me.

the year in books

This is the year I started but never finished a lot of books, which is very unusual for me. I’m the kind of person who reads reference books from cover to cover; I’m also the kind of person who reads the copyright page, forward, thanks, and bibliography (ok, I only skim the bibliography). Yes, I like to digest every element of the book. However, as the years go by, I’ve realized my time for reading becomes more and more limited. There really is no point in wasting my time on books that do not bring joy, enlightenment, or discussion to my life.

Despite all the abandoned books, I still managed to finish a total of forty-three. That’s a little shy of my goal of fifty but much better than I had thought (I always feel like I’m not reading enough). Of the forty-three books, twenty-nine were penned by women. I always read a healthy dose of writing by women so no surprise there. And of the forty-three, eight of the books are by authors of color. 19%. Not terrible, but not great either. I read books by people of color because they’re great books, not specifically because they’re by authors of color. However, I do think the number is low partly because books by authors of color don’t get the attention they deserve. I can’t read them if I don’t know about them.

The publishing industry’s diversity track record is pretty abysmal. It could definitely be doing more to bring works by authors of color into the world and promote them; bookstores, libraries, and readers could help too. Publisher Lee and Low Books frequently covers this topic on their blog, and this post illustrates just one example of how stagnant diversity has been in the industry. Lee and Low Books also discusses diversity in film, Silicon Valley, and more, and they often include great infographics neatly depicting the gap. Their blog is definitely worth checking out. So is the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

And a final update on my participation in An Unconventional Librarian’s 2015 Diversity Reading Challenge. I read fairly broadly, but even so, the challenge pushed me to expand my boundaries. Of the twelve themes, I have read books that cover all but one.

Interested in more bookish thoughts? Check out my bibliophilia posts.

DIVERSITY-CHALLENGECollage

a love letter to correspondence

I recently read a very thoughtful piece by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings about how technology has changed the way we communicate and spend our time. She begins by talking about the correspondence between herself and her grandmother, and the shift from handwritten letters to emails.

“As I ran my fingers over the lined paper, words subtly debossed by the pressure of my grandmother’s ballpoint pen, I wondered about the continuity of personal identity across this shift — my letter-writing self seemed to have entirely different things to say, and to say them entirely differently, than my email-writing self, and yet the two selves belong to the same person.”

This really resonated with me because I recognize that same dichotomy in my own correspondence. I strive to write emails to loved ones the same way as I write letters, with the same intent and fullness of self, but I always find my emails to be a bit flat, not quite as three-dimensional as my letters.

Maybe that’s because I’m the kind of person who rereads and edits every email message before I hit send. When I write letters, there is no editing. It is a flow of consciousness that is sometimes concise and on point. At other times, it is meandering, as I ponder ideas, experiences, and emotions. I find this less censored and unedited version of myself to be more authentic and immediate. More flawed. Just as I am in the physical presence of family and friends. I am comfortable being me and saying whatever I want to say, whether it is coherent, rambling, mundane, or profound.

It’s for this same reason that, while I rarely read biographies or memoirs, I enjoy discovering the letters of others. A better reflection of that particular moment in time, versus an experience recalled from distant memory, letters have a deeper resonance. Fortunately for the curious like myself, large volumes of correspondence have been made available via public archives and publication.

Letters of Note

I’ve been perusing Letters of Note, compiled by Shaun Usher and which originated from his blog of the same name. There are plenty of letters by the famous, but also by ordinary people whose lives have become obscured with time. Messages from mothers who agonized over the decision to give up their children. An eloquent response from a freed slave to his former master’s plea for help. Endearing letters from young children to presidents like Lincoln and Nixon.

As an artist, I’m always particularly drawn to the correspondence of other artists, such as Sol LeWitt’s letter to friend and fellow artist Eva Hesse, also included in Letters of Note. It is a letter of encouragement, in response to Hesse’s bout of self-doubt:

“… you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT… But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working – then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to DO.” (April 14, 1965)

The struggles of creative living are so universal that the sentiments of artists, writers, and musicians from decades ago, even hundreds of years ago, still seem relevant. Reading their letters and personal writings is a humbling experience, but also uplifting. There is a sense of community in knowing others have walked before you and have faced the same challenges.

Another letter that resonated with me is Amelia Earhart’s letter to George Putnam on the morning of their wedding:

“You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations but have no heart to look ahead.” (February 7, 1931)

Earhart has neatly outlined the plight of women for centuries – family or career? Yes, you can have both, but I don’t think it’s become any easier.

There are many other gems in Letters of Note, passionate voices that illuminate the small and big moments of life. Our letters are mostly intended for a single confidante and we mostly write to relay news, not record it, but all the same this simple and sincere endeavor provides so much insight into individuals, history, and the human spirit.

I never feel like digging around in my inbox, but opening a box of old correspondence is like falling under a spell. I feel compelled to revisit each missive, to slip each letter from its envelope and let the memories wash over me – relationships, emotions, and experiences – all tumbling forward to the present. Like being swept away by a fragrance you had once known and feeling the desire to reconnect, once again.

thankful every day

The list of things I am thankful for varies slightly day by day but the core of it is mostly the same, and at the very top of the list are people. When I think of all the wonderful people who are a part of my life – and there are too many to name or count – my heart becomes so full that I am surprised it hasn’t burst yet. It always reminds me of how fortunate I am to know the overwhelming feeling of being so loved.

I am thankful for my family, who loves me unconditionally and has always supported me, even when they don’t understand the choices I make.

I am thankful for my friends, for their love, faith, and support. They have always believed in me and my adventures. Although they are scattered all over this great, wide world, there is no distance large enough to separate us.

I am thankful for all my adopted mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, the people who have welcomed me into their lives and cared for me as their own. Mostly the families of friends, but also strangers who have become friends. I have found home no matter where I’ve gone.

I am thankful for my teachers, especially the elementary and secondary education teachers, who always believed I would succeed. As a child still finding her way, they made me believe I could do anything, and I have accomplished much. Perhaps not exactly what they may have imagined, but I am living a life that brings me joy.

I am thankful for collaborators, all the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to work with. In this digital age, it is easier than ever to meet and collaborate with people from all over the world. It’s amazing to know that others share my vision and allow me to participate in theirs. For those I have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so someday.

I am thankful for all the people who have touched my heart and my life. The people above, yes, but also strangers and those I may have known for a time but may never see again. My life would not be the same without you.

My friend Gretchen once relayed something to me that someone else had shared with her: Remember the joy. No matter what I’m going through, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, all I have to do is think of all these people and instantly it becomes a better day.

shivelight

Shivelight hat and cowl designed by Thien-Kieu Lam

 

Shivelight hat and cowl designed by Thien-Kieu Lam

Introducing my newest knit design – Shivelight! It’s a matching hat and cowl design that is featured in the 2015 winter collection of Twist Collective.

The idea for this design came from my obsession with language, specifically with my discovery of the Japanese word komorebi, a noun for the “sunlight filtering through trees.” I love these kinds of words (usually found in languages other than English), which encapsulate an entire situation, state of being, or phenomenon in a single word. So succinct!

With this image in my mind, I sat down with some graph paper and a pencil. My original swatch looks nothing like the finished design. I would show you, but that swatch seems to have disappeared into a black hole somewhere. It didn’t quite capture the feeling of komorebi so I filed the idea in a drawer in the back of my mind and worked on other designs. I’m a big believer in stepping away from problems and coming back to them later with a fresh perspective.

I never looked at that swatch again. I didn’t think about it much either, until I came across a stitch motif called “roots and branches.” This was the light bulb moment. I knew I could adapt this motif to create the look I wanted, and it became the basis for this hat and cowl.

And in the process of working on this design, I discovered “shivelight,” the English equivalent to komorebi. It’s a word coined by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and it’s never quite caught on with the masses, but I think it’s a beautiful word. And thus, a design was born, complete with title and all.

For Shivelight, I had the opportunity to work with a new-to-me yarn, Lakes Yarn and Fiber Organic Merino Sport. It’s made from 100% GOTS certified merino and is hand-dyed in small batches by Ami Volz. It was lovely to work with, and Ami also offers other great colorways.

Shivelight was a joy to design, and I can’t wait to see your interpretation of it! Details for the pattern can be found here.

Shivelight design by Thien-Kieu Lam

All images are by photographer Crissy Jarvis and used with the kind permission of Twist Collective.