Two nice things: Celeste Keller painting & Mary Oliver poem.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.17.29 PMMysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity,
while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

– Mary Oliver

I am tired and sick, so nothing more to say today, except this: Mary Oliver is the most comforting and uplifting poet. Besides Yeats, who I adore, she might be my favorite.

Painting by Celeste Keller, who does lovely portraits. 

Why I read, why I write: Kurt Vonnegut edition.

ann teresa barboza embroidery artist

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Kurt Vonnegut is such a boss. Here are his eight tips of writing short stories, a list that includes “be a sadist” and “every character should want something.” But the above quote is my favorite. Write to please one person. When I’m teaching writing to kids, I call this their “dream reader” or “fantasy reader.” Who is a person who you admire, who you most want to read your work? When I write, I think about a professor I studied with at Bard. I write for him, because writing for everyone is exhausting and impossible. A fools errand, just like trying to be liked by every person at the party.

Image by Ana Teresa Barboza, who creates amazing embroideries of plants and bodies and other natural things. Check out her website here.

Things I read that I loved: ‘Bobcat and Other Stories’ by Rebecca Lee

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 5.55.20 PMMy boyfriend gave me Bobcat as a gift. He saw it on my Amazon wish list and decided to get it for me. He didn’t buy it because of the reviews or the book blurb. He bought it based entirely on the cover illustration. He didn’t tell me that when he gave it to me. He told me later, after I had already drank it down like a shot. I told him I loved his gift. I meant it. Rebecca Lee writes with such airy precision. Every story in this collection left an impression in my brain, something faint. A thought I knew I would return to.

But my favorite story in the book isn’t the title story (though that one is very, very good) but rather “Min.” Like all Lee’s stories, this one feels global in scope, located firmly in place and time (with all the politics that implies). Like all Lee’s stories, it also transcends the immediate and gestures toward the timeless, towards truths. In “Min,” a woman (a student of feminist theory, no less) travels to China in the late 1980’s with her male friend, Min. When she arrives, she is given a task: to find his future wife. The plot doesn’t play out like I expected. But in her search for Min’s perfect wife, the narrator comes across this:

Earlier that day I had found a sheet of paper on which Min’s grandmother had written her definition of the “superior woman.” At the top of the page it said, “Formula for Woman, According to Dignity.” The formula was “Has excellent posture, which is two-thirds contentment and one-third desire.”

Oh! Oh. It’s almost too obscure to be wise. But it is wise, I think. Two-thirds contentment, one-third desire. The golden ratio for a dignified person. Neither restless from desire nor lazy from contentment. This is a person who burns slowly like a candle, not rapidly like a forest fire or embers smoldering and soft, flickering out.

I took stock of myself after reading that paragraph. I realized that my contentment is too small. My desire isn’t too large—that isn’t my problem. My posture doesn’t suffer from excess of desire. I don’t ache from it. It doesn’t cripple my steps. But my contentment? That’s another matter.

But go read this book. It’s lovely. It’s smart. I almost wrote a fan letter to Rebecca Lee—that’s how much I like it.

Some bookish things: Snow maidens, Vonnegut, & Tsundoku

kurt1. Isn’t this portrait of Kurt Vonnegut great? He wrote such dark books, but had such a lovely, optimistic mind. The Chicago-based artist does other funny “pep-talk” prints, including a great one of Dolly Parton.

2. I just learned a new “untranslatable” word, and it perfectly describes my apartment: Tsundoku. It’s a Japanese word that describes the act of buying books and leaving them unread in piles around your home. Right now, I’m staring at a pile of books that includes novels by Sarah Waters (who wrote Fingersmith, which was just fantastic) and The Snow Childwhich I’m actually quite close to finishing, so technically it’s not “unread.” But I wish it were! It’s so, so good that I wish I hadn’t read it so I could go back to the beginning and start over. It’s about an old homesteader couple in Alaska that wish a child into being. The magic snow-child’s name is Faina. How beautiful is that?

Why I read, why I write: Kafka edition.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.05.20 AM

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

An axe for the frozen sea inside us! Good Lord. What a fantastic way to put it. It’s fitting that this rather dark (yet ultimately hopeful) reading of reading comes from the same mind that turned a salesman into a bug and skewered the inhumanity of the penal system. I imagine Kafka’s frozen sea is perhaps more choppy and violent than most (but also more beautiful, gleaming with ice crystals and the cold blue of glaciers). Oh and that picture? It’s by Russian-born (and now New Haven-based) illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova. She has some great prints for sale on Etsy, and counts “dashing historical men, good grammar, fancy urns, books, elephants” and folklore among her interests. Basically, she’s an artist after my own heart. Check out her website here.

Previously: Why I read, why I write.

Emily Carroll gets under my skin.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 7.58.21 PMI have a raging girl crush on Canadian artist and writer Emily Carroll. She has single-handedly shown me that graphic novels and webcomics aren’t just for boys in love with guns. Sure, her comics are violent, but not in the POW! BANG! way of vintage superheroes and their incompetent nemeses. Carroll’s stories are violent in a slow, creeping way. They are dark and twisted, like the original Grimm’s fairytales (nothing like that sanitized Disney junk).

She writes fables and horror stories, fairytales and mysteries, and illustrates them beautifully. There is a layer of mistiness to each image, a sense of distance, a gray wash that only enhances the shock of crimson that comes later (sometimes it’s blood, but sometimes the horror is something else entirely).

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 8.09.41 PMI had my own little Christmas book flood this year (or in Icelandic, Jolabokaflod) and one of the books I received was Through The Woods, a print collection of Carroll’s webcomics and stories. Some of these are available to read online, including “His Face All Red,” a fantastic story of two brothers and a wolf, and “Out of Skin,” which is about a crone who finds herself suffocating in human skin. They’re spooky and wonderful—wholly original fairytales that pay tribute to the history the genre without being beholden to it.

Go read them on her site, or better yet, buy a copy of her book. It’s the kind of heavy book that keeps you coming back to it (I’ve read it twice already). Despite containing relatively few words, it is captivating in a literary sense and in a can’t-look-away-can’t-look-at-it sense. Also, I’ve realized that graphic novels are great because they make me slow way down and pay attention to exactly what I’m looking at. You can’t rush through them. You have to read the pictures, to pause and look at them, to suss out the clues buried within each pen stroke.

Grimm plus Gorey equals macabre fairytale perfection.

grimmgorey
Edward Gorey once illustrated classic fairytales from The Brothers Grimm, retold in sparse but humorous language by author James Donnelly. How did I not know this?!? What a perfect combination. If I had a kid, I would buy this for them straightaway. rumpelstiltskinIn case you couldn’t tell, the top picture shows Little Red Riding Hood meeting that big, bad wolf in the forest before it runs off to do some mild cross-dressing. The second picture is Rumpelstiltskin, that little gnome-y scoundrel, dancing in the forest and celebrating the victory that will never be his.

Buy the book here.

“Prose is a window onto the world.”

Marshall & Neil The Lion

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

― Steven PinkerThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Photograph by Michael Rougier for Time magazine.

I want to move to Iceland for the Jolabokaflod.

wild reindeer
Every year, my mom gives me a book for Christmas. She gets me other things, too, because my mom and I share a tendency to over-gift, but the book was a constant. As a child, we were often allowed to open these packages on Christmas Eve. We only got one gift early, and it was always, always a book.

I thought this tradition was unique to my family. Turns out, it’s a common practice in Iceland. Books are such a standard present in that cold country that it spurs a surge in publishing in the months leading up to the holiday. This wonderfully literary ritual even has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”

According to this NPR article, Iceland is an extremely literary country. Not only does every Icelander aspire to write a book (hey, me too!) but the average citizen buys more books than the typical American. “If you look at book sales distribution in the U.K. and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky,” says Baldur Bjarnason, a researcher who has been following the Icelandic publishing market. “It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year.”

Several books a year? Okay, that doesn’t sound like that many, especially to a book-horder like me. But it is a fairly big difference. Literary culture, on the whole, is much more significant in Iceland than in America. Perhaps this explains why so many Icelanders believe in elves (aka the Huldufólk, or “hidden people”). Maybe people who read more fairytales are more likely to believe in them. Or perhaps just reading in general opens your mind to the weird and wonderful possibilities of the world—magic not excluded.iceland cabin

“I loved reading and I wanted you kids to love books,” said my Christmas-crazy mom when I asked her whether she knew about this Scandinavian ritual. “A lot of people have the tradition of singing carols, which is what I did as a kid. Reading books to you kids was something we could do all together.” We’ve never been a musical family (I’m particularly tone deaf, though my brothers aren’t exactly talented in that department either) so reading it was.

There are a lot of holiday rituals I don’t observe. I’m not religious, nor do I imagine that will change (I don’t believe in elves, either, though I sort of wish I did). But a tradition that revolves around giving—and getting—brand new reading material? That’s my kind of Christmas.

Two Nice Things: Yumi Okita makes textile moths, reminds me of the Limberlost.

Moths! They’re the redheaded stepchild of the butterfly family (no, that’s not science, but it feels true anyway). They’re ugly and furry and yet, in Yumi Okita’s hands, they’re kind of… cute? Cuddly? Fuzzy and warm? Yumi okita
Not since I read A Girl of the Limberlost (a novel by naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter published in 1909) have I been so taken with moths. The book tells the story of a young Indiana girl named Elnora who sends herself to school with the money she makes selling insect specimens. She goes into the Limberlost swamp—what a wonderful, fantastical name for a real place!—where she finds all manner of strange flora and fauna. yumi
I think Elnora (again, that name!) would love Yumi Okita’s textile moths. She makes these beautiful patterned winged things from yarn and string and fiber. You can’t tell from these pictures, but the moths are actually huge—each wing is about as big as a hand. yumi2

I particularly like these three, but Okita creates insects (and flowers) in all different shapes and sizes. They mimic real life, but they’re infinitely more beautiful than the average brown moth you see dive-bombing a lightbulb. Just look at the patterns! And I’m really loving this particular color scheme right now. Rose and dust and dusty rose and soft browns and warm ivory. See more of her work here.