I would never have thought to have described myself as a fan of non-fiction, but here I am recommending my second work of non-fiction to you in the book club. That book is The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It’s part memoir, part art history investigation, and part philosophical investigation into loneliness. As someone who moved to a big, lonely city not that long ago it was a wonderful introspective companion.

In her mid-30s Laing moved to New York for a relationship, which fell apart just as she crossed the ocean. In a new city, half away across the world from friends and loved ones and feeling the acute space left behind by losing a partner, this moment of intense loneliness sparks Laing’s investigation into the feeling. She documents her own experience of loneliness and her growing understanding of works of art she had seen a million times before.

This investigation into art and loneliness begins when Laing realises she could cast herself as a figure in a Hopper painting. The Lonely City is broken up into four artist studies: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. Each study really delves into the life of each artist and touches on how their loneliness is present in their works. Laing doesn’t limit herself to simply discussing the artist in question, in each section she investigates parallels in other works and the characters who surrounded them.

I learned so much in these sections. Like Laing, I had never really paid much attention to Warhol or Hopper despite, or perhaps because of, their popularity. But when I heard more about their lives and their loneliness images I had seen time and time again took on a new depth and humanity. While I feel like that happens whenever you learn more about an artist, there’s something so private about a person’s loneliness that Laing’s depictions really cut to the bone in a way that was at once beautiful, fascinating, and a little intrusive.

The only thing I would have wished of this book is that Laing’s personal moments of loneliness were given greater weight and better interwoven into the artist’s stories she tells. The art history moments feel at once like interludes where you wait for the author to return and also Laing’s focus. Laing investigates the stories of other artists’ but seems to forget at moments that perhaps the most compelling story she could tell is her own. But then again, maybe Laing is simply distancing herself in the same way that she describes Warhol and others doing.

That imbalance didn’t detract from my fascination with gaining a greater understanding of the people behind some of the most famous names in art. There is something wonderful about realising, and re-realising, you aren’t alone in feeling alone. However, fleeting that comfort might be it is the true power of literature.

Laing’s dedication to The Lonely City reads: “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you.” I think that’s my recommendation if you’ve ever felt lonely or lost in a city, isolated in a sea of people, then this book is for you. You’ll see and understand yourself in some of its pages but you’ll also feel a little less lonely whether that’s in comparison or companionship with the lonely characters she describes.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Try looking up the artworks for one chapter as you go. Or, if you’re naturally a look-er up-per, try just imagining for a chapter. How does having the images, or not, in front of you change the reading experience?
  • What would you say the tone of the book is?
  • Did you end up mapping your own experiences onto the book? If so where?
  • Are there any other artworks, or images, which conjure loneliness for you?
  • How does knowing the story of an artist change how you view their works? Does it make them more personal? Less lonely? More lonely?
  • After reading it, do you see the feeling of being lonely as a positive or a negative one, or something else?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Lonely City themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Lonely City, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

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After hearing Ariel Bissett, who is one of my absolute favourite booktubers, rave about All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, I knew I had to read it. I ordered a copy almost immediately after hearing her review, but it took me a while to work my way through my pile of books to get to it.

“Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.”

That’s how All We Shall Know begins. That first confession sets up the premise and the tone of the rest of the novel. Melody Shee is pregnant. It is not her husband’s child. It is her Traveller student’s. This story is her confession and her penitence. She is blunt.

Ryan’s fourth novel is set in a claustrophobically small town in Ireland, where everyone knows everyone’s business and where Melody can’t escape the glares of her community. A failed attempt to revisit the father of her child leads to her finding a friend and a perfect foil in the form of Traveller Mary Crothery. From the moment they meet, their stories become intertwined tales of women ostracised by childless marriages.

Melody’s story is broken into the weeks of her pregnancy. As that biological clock drives the plot forward towards an inevitable end, Melody looks back and recounts how her marriage fell apart, how she betrayed her best school friend and her relationship with her mother.

She narrates how she perceives her failures as a wife, a friend and as a daughter. But she sees this new baby as a potential redemption, just as she sees her relationship with Mary as an opportunity to right the wrongs of her past. She never takes full accountability for her mistakes, but, instead, ruminates on them. She isn’t a victim but she never sees herself as a free actor. On one hand, for me, this made her a deeply unlikeable character. But on the other, this is one of the greatest qualities of Ryan’s writing. Melody is a flawed anti-hero of her own story, she’s human. Nowhere is that more visible than in the descriptions of her arguments with her husband Pat. Their relationship is caustic and abusive but seeing it through Melody’s eyes you can see how it came to that point, you can understand it.

All We Shall Know is the first book I’ve really raced through this year. One part of that is that it’s a compact little novel. But the other is that it’s a compulsive read. It’s short chapters, it’s sense of time counting down, Ryan’s bitterly angry language and its interspersed snippets of plot all come together to keep you turning the pages. However, I will say that this book didn’t blow my mind in the way I thought it would. I found the traveller plot a little ham-fisted and stereotyped and Melody’s sudden outbursts often incongruous and shoe-horned. Those factors didn’t detract from my enjoyment but I want these reviews to be honest. If you’ve read All We Shall Know, I’d love to know your thoughts and discuss them!

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • How does knowing the novel has a set timeframe, the 9 months of a pregnancy, affect your reading experience?
  • Do you warm to Melody as a character, do you feel sympathy towards her? Why?
  • How does Ryan create the sense of a claustrophobic town where everyone knows your business?
  • What impact do the socio-economic and cultural differences of Melody and Mary have in your understanding of their relationship?
  • The novel is centred on women and their relationships as mothers, as friends, as wives what difference do you think it makes that these very female interactions are written by a man?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use the All We Shall Know themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read All We Shall Know, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

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This is the final instalment of my podcast posters series, for now at least. As the last one included 2 posters, this week I thought I would push myself and go for 3. These are 3 very different podcasts, but they’re 3 I couldn’t finish this series without designing for.

My Dad Wrote a Porno

After getting on the My Dad Wrote a Porno train a bit late, I made pretty much everyone I know get on with me. Simply put it is hilarious, like cry and pee you pants hilarious. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, Jamie Morton’s dad (‘Rocky Flintstone’) wrote a porno called Belinda Blinked and now he’s reading it for all of the internet to hear. What really makes the rib-aching laughs is the commentary offered by James Cooper and Alice Lavine. They’ve already made 2 incredibly popular series and a book, so there’s plenty to binge on if you haven’t begun your porno journey. If like me, you’ve already listened to every episode at least twice, they’ve promised series 3 will be coming very soon!  Originally my design for this podcast was going to be a bit more subtle and revolve around playing with negative space. But My Dad Wrote a Porno isn’t really about subtlety, so instead I thought I would illustrate one of my favourite, boob-based, lines from the Belinda Blinked books so far.

 

This American Life

There is no way I could do this series without including This American Life, THE podcast for podcasters. There’s so much I could write, and already have written about my love for This American Life, so I won’t go on too much here. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock (a mountain-sized rock) and haven’t heard of it yet, every episode of This American Life is based around a theme and features a series, or sometimes just one story, on that theme. They feature some of the best radio journalism out there, the occasional bit of comedy or fiction, and they were responsible for the smash hit spin-off podcast Serial. For this last poster, I felt like I needed to capture something of the importance and stature of This American Life in the podcasting community, and translate it into design.

 

Ctrl Alt Delete

I can’t believe I’ve only recently started listening to the wonder that is Emma Gannon’s podcast Ctrl Alt Delete. Crtl Alt Delete features all around girl boss Emma Gannon interviewing pretty much all of your favourite people from the internet (and the rest of the world) about how social media and the internet has changed their lives. The interviews are as insightful and entertaining as her book of the same name. Each episode is jam-packed with wisdom from people who are really killing it, and plenty of “I can’t believe they do that too” moments. I wanted this poster to be about the way that the internet and technology has changed the way we see the world, not in the way that traditional media complains about “bad narcissistic anti-social millennials” but in a way that has changed the world and brought so many people and ideas together.

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Carrying on from the Hamish and Andy poster I created last week, I wanted to design some more alternative posters for my favourite podcasts. This week I’m sharing two, for a couple of my favourite design themed podcasts. They’re both very different, but they both provide me with a lot of creative inspiration.

The Raise Your Hand Say Yes podcast sees Tiffany Han discuss all things creative living and working with some of the most interesting artists, makers and doers around. All of Tiffany’s interviews really get to the heart of what a living a creative life means for her subject. She doesn’t shy away from showing the tough side of pursuit a creative job, instead, the podcast is designed to be something of a companion for those tough moments that offers advice and encouragement to her listeners. This poster focuses on that spirit of finding beauty and growth when you say yes.

The best pieces of design are the ones you don’t notice. 99 Percent Invisible “is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about”. The podcast covers the design everything from cities and architecture to objects, to sounds, but the episodes are all held together by an overarching sense of curiosity and wonder. I wanted my poster design to highlight the way that the podcast really changes the way you look at the world and shines a light on the incredible stories of the designs behind so much of what surrounds us. So I took a bit of inspiration from their logo and decided to show a visible 1% of the city.

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A common way for designers to hone (and often show off) their skills is to redesign their favourite movie posters. People like Peter Majarich have created some incredible alternative designs, that really capture something about the film that’s at the heart of their work. Inspired by those posters, I decided I wanted to do something similar.

However, instead of redesigning movie posters, I wanted to create posters for some of my favourite podcasts. I love podcasts, but because they’re solely audio (and often don’t have the huge budgets of films) they don’t always have snazzy design work to accompany their downloads. So, I thought creating podcast posters would be the perfect project for me.

I thought I would start with the first podcast I ever listened to, the Hamish and Andy show. I’ve been a loyal person of the people’s show for almost a decade. I’ve followed them on gap years, on long ships, on quests for the perfect crisp and to bring Fred Bassett alive via the airwaves. This year will be their final year on the radio. I wanted these poster designs to try and capture the fun and friendship their show has provided over the last decade and the way that the people of the people’s show are half of what makes it great. So this is my celebration of their radio victory lap before moving on to TV.

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