Your body is a wonderland.

Travis Bedel1What I’m Reading:
Mary Roach’s delightfully morbid, tastelessly funny Stiff. I’ve read Bonk before, Roach’s book on the scientific study of sex, and this one is similar, but I think much better. Stiff is all about cadavers (that word sounds too much like a food item for my taste, yet I like it more than “dead bodies”). How we care for them. How we use them. How we abuse them. In the introduction to the book, she describes the process of becoming so deeply obsessed with a topic that she pursues it for years—despite the fact that many people find her work off-putting and strange and her professional interests disturbing, even threatening. “I’m a curious person,” she explains. “Like all journalists, I’m a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating. I used to write about travel. I traveled to escape the known and the ordinary. The longer I did this, the farther afield I had to go. By the time I found myself in Antarctica for the third time, I began to search closer at hand.” The world is full the strange and unfamiliar things, and Roach wants to find them, to peer closely at them, to play doubting Thomas and prod at their wounds. Reading this, I was reminded of a quote by essayist Kathleen Hale: “I never look for things to grab me. They just do, and once they do, the obsessions usually continue until I’m so sick of them—or of myself for enacting them—that suddenly, and with a sense of great relief, I’m repulsed.” When I read this passage, I wanted to find Hal and shake her. “You nailed it!” I would yell in her face. “That’s exactly exactly what it’s like!” To be obsessed, to be a voyeur, to be relentlessly curious to the point where you begin to wonder if it’s really healthy—I think maybe that’s what it is to be a writer.

Travis BedelWhat I’m Admiring:
To stay true to theme, I’ve been really digging the work of artist Travis Bedel. He use anatomical imagery as the jumping off point for his intricate collages, turning the human body into a lush and unsettling menagerie. I imagine if one dissected a nymph, or a citizen of Narnia, they might find this waiting inside. It’s a lovely visual depiction of the circle of life (dust to dust and earth to earth and guts to flowers and the worms crawl in and all that) or an eerie reimagining of what lies within. I personally think his work is very pretty, but then again, I consider Stiff light bedtime reading, so perhaps I’m a terrible judge of these things. (If you like his work, you can buy prints online at Society6 and Etsy.)

travis bedel3

Bloody good stuff: illustrators cover Angela Carter.

Company of Wolves by Sidsel Sorensen Angela Carter is the fairy godmother of modern fairytales. Twisted and clever, Carter turns the classics upside down, subverting them in sensual, strange, provocative ways. I like it! Can you tell?

And if there is anything I’ve learned from working at a magazine, it’s that great stories need great visuals. Well, maybe they don’t need them (the oral tradition would beg to differ) but they definitely benefit from the right images. Knowing that, The Guardian issued a call for entries for Carter’s best work. The results are just fantastic. My favorite is this one: Sidsel Sørensen draws “The Company of Wolves.”

See them all here.

A side effect of reading.

Reading by Pablo Gallo

When you read a really, really great book, it changes how you perceive the world. I was talking to a fellow writer friend about this a few nights ago. We couldn’t quite pin down what we thought about this—it’s at once freeing and scary, intimate and distancing. It feels as though you’ve invited another writer to come live in your head—or crawled inside theirs.

I tried to think about the last book that made me feel drunk on words, and I have trouble bringing one to mind. I think it must be The Empathy Exams, a series of essays by Leslie Jamison about pain, the body, compassion, femininity, and other slippery subjects. On the other, fictitious hand, One Hundred Years of Solitude still makes me feel strange and a little dizzy every time I read it. The Unbearable Lightness of Being turns me into a overly touchy yet emotionally reticent partner. Margaret Atwood makes me bubble and fizz with nebulous anger and self-righteousness and Toni Morrison makes my heart hurt in a way that is sweet and uneasy. I just hope that I don’t lose each of these tiny personalities that forms inside my skull. I like to think they snarl together (like a mental rat-king of great authors and ideas) and wait for when I’m ready to use them. Maybe they do.

It’s my goal in life to write one thing, one book, that changes the way just a few people look at things. I want my writing to ask people to really, truly look at each other. To see them in a new, hopefully more forgiving, light.

Image by Pablo Gallo

Ian Davey’s flights of fancy.

feather-painting5-550x480Artist Ian Davey paints exquisite and delicate scenes of nature on an unusual canvas: swan feathers. Naturally, much of his work depicts birds, alongside other kinds of flora and fauna. Naturally, I’m impressed.

I actually just wrote “I’m obsessed,” but that’s not true, is it? No, I’m impressed and awed and a little in love with the work others do, but looking at Davey’s impossibly detailed, impossibly delicate pieces, I’m reminded of what true, genuine, nearly obsessive passion looks like. He must love what he does. There must be something sweet and quiet about creating each piece. It’s probably like how I feel when I leave the room and it’s just my characters playing on a page (not me anymore, not a writer working, toiling away with a lock of hair in my mouth and a furrow growing between my eyes as I stare, stare at the words). It must feel something like that.

I think that’s why I’m drawn to artists who do this kind of dexterous, focused work. Like Jenine Shereos or John Stortz. It’s easier to spot with visual artists, but there are writers who work the same way. Some writers paint with huge brushes and gesture wildly. Their characters tend to barrel into my mind, knocking down defenses and inserting their speech patterns on top of my own. But then there are writers who sneak up on you. It might take longer to swallow those first chapters, but once I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, I tend to stay there for a long, long time.

Why I read, why I write.

gatsby-cover“F. Scott Fitzgerald writes the best sentences out of any author, ever,” said my incredibly passionate, delightfully nerdy high school English teacher. At the time, I didn’t even think to disagree. Fitzgerald’s sentences were so intricate, so smart, so filled with detail and beauty, that I couldn’t imagine liking anything more. It was a time when The Great Gatsby epitomized literary perfection (at least, it did for me) and there was nothing more appealing than being one of The Beautiful and The Damned. While his books included very little sex, at least by modern standards, they were sexy in a way that appealed to my angst-ridden 16-year-old self. Fitzgerald’s ladies were wilting and lovely, brilliant but dulled by too much champagne. Glittery and full of spark, yet oppressed and exhausted by everything. I think that’s what I wanted to be: beautifully, gracefully, electrically exhausted.

Now, I like to think I know better. I no longer read his short stories and novels searching for a shadow of myself. But I will always admire his sentences. Who else can craft that kind of sentence, that speaks infinities with a single dependent clause, that opens new worlds of thoughts with a well-placed bit of punctuation?

Here to answer my question is a roundup by The American Scholar. I came to this list from an NPR story I only half heard, and I didn’t quite know what to expect when I dug up the article and clicked the link. Things are not often exactly what I expect (they’re usually a little more, and equally often, a whole lot less) but this is. From the first chosen sentence, a passage from (where else?) The Great Gatsby, to the last, an atrociously cruel Nabokov quote, it’s a wonderful reminder of why I love to read. I love to read because Toni Morrison can write things like this: “It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” I love to read because Joan Didion can at once awaken my cynicism and send a shiver down my spine as easy as this: “It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.”

I love to read because it reminds me of my own capacity to wonder.

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Jillian Tamaki makes myths come alive.

Screen shot 2013-08-12 at 7.59.28 PMI have always been drawn to myths and legends above all other forms of storytelling. They’re the oldest answers to all of our questions. They speak to people across cultures and generations. They say something vital, strange, and deep about what it is to be human. They are in our blood, deep within our veins, moving like so many slow growing roots, connecting us to our most primal fears, most archaic yearnings.

Over and over, artists have tried to capture the otherworldly nature of these stories, and I never get sick of seeing them. But these images, by illustrator Jillian Tamaki, strike a powerful chord in me. Her style is both precise and free-flowing. Shadows of horses rush from a dark cloud, swans beat their wings into a frenzy of feathers. The style reminds me of woodblocks, but there is something wonderfully modern about each piece.

irishmythsandlegends_tamaki8In addition to this series, which was created for a new printing of Irish Myths and Legends (available through The Folio Society), Tamaki has worked on several more mundane projects. But though they may be company commissioned, her talent elevates even ads.

See more here.


Maine-made prints.

Hummingbird TriptychI don’t highlight Maine-based artists nearly enough on my blog, especially considering how much awesome talent is hidden away in our corner of the country. Including Josh Brill, the artist behind Lumadessa. He makes these fantastic geometric animal prints that I totally adore. While his shop has many colorful avian prints—including a stately blue jay and a pretty little cardinal—I particularly like the jungle animals. Made of stripes and blocks and other hard shapes, they are surprisingly light and sweet.
Screen shot 2013-07-02 at 9.09.06 PMIn unrelated news, I just finished reading Life of Pi. I expected to love it, and I didn’t. But I did close the book with a new appreciation for zookeepers. I’ve still never been to a zoo (an odd never-have-I-ever fact), and I’m not convinced I should ever go to one, but there is something to be said about animals loving their routines. I know my dog loves her simple life.

Anyway, if you want to buy one of Josh’s prints, you can do so here. 1% of profits go to animal and environmental charities, a fact that makes me feel mildly better about possibly purchasing yet another quirky, unframed print. I really need to find some good, cheap frames…

Jason Brooks puts Paris on paper.

paris005Fashion illustrator Jason Brooks has just managed to bump Paris onto my “worth it” plane ticket list. I never really wanted to go to Paris. I’ve always been more attracted to isolated places, like Alaska or Siberia, than big, beautiful, old cites. Though describing it now, I realize I do like those crowded places, too. Just Budapest, not London. Philadelphia, not LA. I’m picky, I guess.

But I am veering too far off topic. Jason Brooks is publishing a book of his sketches of Paris. They are, by their very nature, wonderfully romantic. How can a drawing of a street be romantic? I don’t know. It just is. That’s the entire point of Paris. It exists solely for the macaroons and tulips and rainy, hazy days, and the entire idea of Spring in Paris and love in Paris and that lady who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower and married it. Clearly, she took it too far, but Paris has that je ne sais… Ugh, I’m sorry. Just look at his book.

dear paris

I want to be a sketch.

too prettyI just finished reading Was She Pretty? a graphic novel by Leanne Shapton that explores one simple, jealous, unanswerable question. Was she pretty? We ask our current partners. Yes, they say, with only slight hesitation. “But she was…” mitigates it slightly. But you know. Of course she was pretty, otherwise he (or she) wouldn’t have loved her. She was pretty and a dancer and she cooked him thai food every night. She was pretty and a filmmaker who hated blockbusters and could quote Goddard. Most importantly, she simply was.

While reading it, I found myself thinking not at all about my boyfriend’s exes. I didn’t think of my ex’s either, and what they must be doing with their new, pretty girlfriends who probably love hiking and are too sophisticated for boxed wine. No, all I could think was: I want to be one. I want to be reduced to a simple, lovely sketch. I want some essence of Katy to be distilled into a black-and-white series of lines and a romantic, mysterious caption. John’s girlfriend Katy liked to drive in barefeet and cut-off shorts. She could roll a joint and smoke it without veering from the center line. (High school). Jake’s girlfriend Katy loved watching horror movies with him. Her skinny arms would wrap around his torso, hungry face hidden in his chest. He stroked her hair and never called her by her proper name. (Or later) Josh’s ex-girlfriend Katy worked best in her own bed and hated staying at his house. She had the most dexterous toes he had ever seen, and loathed it when he made his bed.

It’s fun. I don’t sound nearly as romantic as a ballerina or an aristocrat, but with the right sketch, I think I could make someone jealous. Or someone fall in love with my two-line personality, like I did reading Shapton’s words, again, and again.