Category Archives: Literary Giants

Thou Mayest.

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“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”
– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

East of Eden is my favorite book of all time, and I knew the moment I first read these three paragraphs that I had encountered something profound. I think the words “thou mayest” are emblematic of the balance of free will, equal parts all-encompassing possibility and personal morality, and that’s an emblem I don’t mind having on my body forever. 2012 was the year of no regrets, and getting my first tattoo hasn’t upset the year’s theme: I love my tattoo, and I’m glad I did it. Now, on to the next.

My tattoo was done by Chris at Liberty Tattoo in Seattle, Washington.

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As Once The Winged Energy of Delight.

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As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.

Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.

To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions…For the god
wants to know himself in you.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

The Arts, According to Vonnegut.

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Read This: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.

PhotobucketI’ve mentioned that I love a good bildungsroman, but a bildungsroman set in Norway against the backdrop of a world war and recounted in present-day, decades later, by the man who has succeeded in suppressing the memories of his coming-of-age until they’re unearthed by happenstance? That, my friends, is what I like to call a bildungsroman dream come true.

In Out Stealing Horses, sixty-three-year-old Trond Sander is settling into his new home in the wooded countryside after living for many years in the busy city of Oslo. His intentionally solitary lifestyle is interrupted by a chance encounter with a neighbor, and the strangeness of their conversation reminds Trond of the summer of 1948, when he was a fifteen-year-old boy spending the summer with his father in the country helping him fell timber. As he remembers more and more about that summer, his narrative constantly oscillating between the present and the past, it’s revealed that his best friend was responsible for a family tragedy, that his father had a secret life he never knew about, and that that summer was the last time Trond ever saw his father.

Petterson’s writing is positively stunning. He has this really rare and impressive ability to tell dramatic stories without sensationalizing, to render the quotidian realistically whilst mining it for the profound. The prose is spare, measured, deliberate, but it also flows as smoothly and effortlessly as if it were truly a biographical narrative being told in real time, which is a testament to Petterson’s abilities as a writer. One of the things I love most about his writing is the way he marks the really important moments: it’s always a page-long paragraph with long-winded, almost stream-of-consciousness, sentences that begins with an innocuous thought and then shifts into an existential pondering and a profound revelatory moment that’s presented with consummate nonchalance. For example, when the present-day Trond is talking to the town mechanic about fixing up his house and his innate lack of handiness, he reflects to himself:

What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside a veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever. To me, he will never be older.

Memory is such a huge theme in this novel, especially the ways in which time shapes memories. There’s a scene early in the book where Trond’s father asks him to cut the grass behind the cabin with a scythe, and then notices that he’s avoided a patch of tall nettles.

“Why not cut down the nettles?” he said.
I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
“It will hurt,” I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
“You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other, throwing them into a heap, and he did not stop before he had pulled them all up. Nothing in his face indicated that it hurt…

This sentiment is echoed throughout the book, perhaps most notably in the way that Trond approaches his memories: he is relentlessly stoic even in the face of palpably raw recollections of the summer that changed his life forever, and its fascinating to consider whether or not emotional self-control is all that’s needed to create a lasting stronghold against hurt and loss.

Out Stealing Horses is a beautiful novel that will leave a lasting impression on you with its poignance and quiet power. I encourage you: read this book.

Summer Reading List.

Today is June 1st, which means today is also the beginning of summer! In theory, at least. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that today is the beginning of the summer months… yeah, let’s go with that.

I get excited about summer for a lot of reasons, among the most prominent being the opportunity to plan out what I’ll be reading during the summer months. Who has two thumbs and is still an English major book nerd? This girl! During college I would always make a reading list for myself for each school break, and while I don’t get a winter break or spring break anymore, summer still always feels like a break season even when I’m working and thus I keep making summer reading lists. I’ll probably add more books to this list later, but for now, here are five books I’m excited to dive into this summer.

PhotobucketThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I just started reading this a couple days ago, and it’s absolutely enthralling. Skloot digs into the history of HeLa cells, the cells responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine, by examining the life of Henrietta Lacks, the young black woman whose cells were taken by doctors without permission and later became the immortal HeLa cells. The craziest part? Henrietta’s family didn’t find out about her immortal cells until twenty-five years after her death, and haven’t seen a dime from the multi-million dollar human biological materials industry that Henrietta’s cells helped create. It’s a story that’s stranger than fiction and one that is set to pose some serious questions about race, class and bioethics that I’m really interested to read about.

PhotobucketThe Complete Works of Lewis Carroll by Lewis Carroll
Would you believe that I’ve never read any of Lewis Carroll’s work? Sad, but true. My brother bought me Carroll’s collected works a couple Christmases ago and I’m really excited to finally read Alice in Wonderland (one of my favorite Disney films) and Through The Looking Glass as well as some of his lesser-known works. Summer is a time for magic and whimsy, and The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll should provide just that.

 

PhotobucketRilke & Andreas-Salome: A Love Story in Letters (translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler)
This collection of letters between poet Rainer Maria Rilke and writer Lou Andreas-Salome spans more than twenty-five years and sheds a nuanced light on a relationship that is part friendship, part literary mentorship, and part love affair. I love epistles (letter-writing is a lost art!) and these letters already hold a special place in my heart because a piece of one of Rilke’s letters to Andreas-Salome served as a cornerstone of the early days of mine and Nate’s relationship, so needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading all of their correspondence.

PhotobucketBringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
From Amazon.com: “With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman – a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal – sets out to learn the secrets to raising a society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. She discovers that French parents are extremely strict about some things and strikingly permissive about others. And she realizes that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.” Though I’m not a parent and have no designs on being a parent anytime soon, I do find different parenting techniques really fascinating (especially after being an au pair for badly behaved children) and am interested to see if there’s anything revolutionary that we Americans can learn from the French about parenting.

PhotobucketFreedom by Jonathan Franzen
Aside from being one of the most buzzed-about works of fiction in recent memory, everyone I know who has read this book has truly raved about how excellent it is. In what has been described as a blue-collar American epic, Franzen “comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire.” Intrigued? Because I sure am! I’ve only ever read Franzen’s non-fiction work, but I’m excited to read his fiction that has garnered him a place among the most revered contemporary American writers of our time. Go Franzen!

The Importance of Reading and Writing, According to Lamott.

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“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life