If you, like me, get the Sunday night blues, here’s something that might get you excited for the work week: inspiring photos of artists at work! Photographer Jake Green spent the past year documenting children’s illustrators in their studios and the results are intimate, sharp, and cool. The above picture is of Katja Spitzer, a Berlin-based artist, drawing one of her colorful creatures. (If you’ve got little ones, take note: her book Let’s Go Outside is so cheerful and bright, I bet kiddos would love it.) I always enjoy seeing how creative types work, and Green’s photographs make me feel like I’m peering through the window, spying on their process (but in a nice, admiring, non-creepy way… is that possible?) Take a closer look here.
When I was 12, I stole Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club from my dad’s office and read it all the way through in a day or two. I remember rushing through it, gobbling it up like Melville with his oranges, hungry for every detail, thrilled by every disaster. I read it under the covers late at night as my sister slept in our shared room, snoring her little-girl snores and muttering in her sleep. I hated that I was the older sister—kid sisters, it seemed to me, were always more fun. Karr certainly was. Younger sisters had someone to teach them how to be a girl, someone to emulate. I had only books and a nerdy older brother, who taught me how to make chain mail, but not how to apply eyeliner (hence my early forays into makeup were rather unfortunate).
Some might say I was too young to be reading Liars’ Club (like my dad, for instance) but I think I read it at exactly the right time. That book gave me permission to be a little bit bad. And her next memoir, Cherry, taught how to be a teenager, how to be a tough little beast who takes a beating and gets right back up.
You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.
But we remember the bleakness.
That’s mostly what we remember.
I’ve read this interview several times over, and each time, I learn something about being in the world and writing to it.
Anyway, if you haven’t read Liars’ Club or Cherry, they’re both wonderful books. Cherry is the story of her high school years. I read it when I was in high school myself and it was so refreshing and real. It felt like someone I knew was talking to me, telling me that it’s all going to be okay. I wish schools taught Cherry instead of Catcher in the Rye. Boys that age could use a little female perspective once in a while.
My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. I just want to do it because I like doing it and it’s a pleasure. I always quote Tom Waits, because I had this amazing experience of getting to interview him and every single thing that he said was so Socratic—he’s just biblically wise about the arts—and he said something like, “You know, it’s not that important what I do. I’m just a guy that makes jewelry for the inside of people’s heads.”
OH GOD Elizabeth Gilbert nails it, all of it, in this very long, very wonderful interview with The Rumpus. Most people know her from Eat, Pray, Love and many “serious” writers and readers tend to dismiss her because of the chic lit nature of that particular book. But she’s so much more than that! She’s a wonderful nonfiction writer (The Last American Man is one of the most fascinating true stories I’ve ever read) a sharply funny fiction writer (Pilgrims, her short story collection, is also worth a read) and one of the best TED speakers ever (seriously, go watch this right now—it’s awesome).
I’ll stop fan-girling now and stick to the facts. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert makes me feel better about getting rejected, because that’s just a fact of writerly life. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert recognizes the value of hard work and fights against the whole idea of genius, a toxic concept that’s killed plenty of genuine creativity. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert also recognizes that writing isn’t truly that important. It’s not! It’s a wonderful thing to read and a wonderful thing to write, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. It’s one way of addressing the existential despair and the turtles-all-the-way-down nature of the unknowable universe but it’s not life or death.
And, once you recognize that slightly uncomfortable fact about our work, there’s no excuse for not having some goddamn FUN with it.
Above image: sculpture by Ellen Jewett, a Canadian artist who creates fantastical and otherworldly animal pieces.
I’m binge eating disaster lately. I mean, in my reading habits (but probably elsewhere, too). The past three books I’ve read have been about the apocalypse and I enjoyed them all. But not all horrors are not created equal, so in order:
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel // I cry frequently when reading. It’s kind of embarrassing. But I think a good book is one that makes me laugh, loud and rude. A good book is one that makes me choke a little on myself, happy to be so sad. Station Eleven did both. It’s the story of a traveling theater troupe performing Shakespeare for rustic villagers twentysome years after the world has ended from a nasty avian flu. This may be the nerdiest book I’ve ever read. The performers motto is from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient” and the entire book traces mad circles around King Lear (my favorite) and falcons cannot hear the falconers and every other sentence contains a reference and somehow, it all works brilliantly.
- The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Cary // Sometimes, I have a hard time parsing how good or whatever a book is because I just read it too fast. That’s the case here. I read The Girl With All The Gifts today and I freaking loved every moment. Set in dystopian future England, it’s the story of a zombie girl genius who has no idea she’s a “hungry,” as they call it. The book’s title is a translation of the name Pandora and flesh-starved Melanie is the metaphoric gifted girl, whose real gift I can’t say because of spoiler alerts. I can’t decide if this should have been the first one on the list or if I’m still living in it a little, but damn, was it good.
- Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich // A recommendation from a friend brought me this strange book and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. This should be the lynchpin in this list, the one that solidifies the trend: literary, obsessively referential, cynical and politically-affected post-apocalyptic tales published in the last year. Odds Against Tomorrow is about a finance jackass who’s a little less jackass-y than his coworkers but far more brilliant. He is also clearly suffering from very, very bad anxiety (which I suppose is supposed to be his tragic flaw?). But I ended up just really, really wanting him to get a therapist. Lame way to end a novel, but still.
What a lazy, biased series of quasi-reviews of really great books. Whatever, I’m not a critic. Five stars for all.
My 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.
1. 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 Child, which 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?
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.
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. In 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.
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.
Photograph by Michael Rougier for Time magazine.
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.
“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.