Mirror of the World

August 30, 2009
If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I. —Montaigne

A great sense of occasion is present when one has the opportunity to introduce a unique voice. Challenge is, Ali regards his own individuality as the least important thing about him. What makes him spring to life and purpose are the dear people of this world. Sure, I could tell you that he’s Iranian and a Persian mystic, that he’s a lover of Nietzsche and Thoreau and teaches English to students of all ages in Tehran. But that’s only my reflection of him — and I’m too much in the way…

Who are you?

Alireza (Ali for short)

Alireza (Ali for short)

The Friend’s mirror. We find ourselves in each other and give meaning to each other’s existence. Without my Friend, I do not come to existence. And without me, he is an undiscovered, hidden beauty.

What are you reading right now? What do you think about it?

Rumi’s Masnavi. I am speechless. The only thing that comes to mind is that I find it like a journey along the banks of a river whose headwaters are pure and clear but unreachable. That’s the source and destination: eternal perfection. It is the story of a never-ending journey toward an eternally unachievable perfection.

What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned from reading?

The fact that the ways to God are as different and varied as the number of all the people that have lived and will live in the world, and that of all these ways, the best is to be helpful and useful to other people.

What book had the greatest foundational impact on you?

The Divan of Hafiz. Unfortunately, no translation gets even close to its absolute poetical and spiritual beauties and glories.

What is your favorite scene in literature? Explain.

I have many favorite scenes, but only one has captured my whole heart. It’s a scene from Saadi’s Gulistan. A young child, Saadi wakes up in the middle of



the night to say some prayers (say the Salat which is the Muslim way of regularly praying to God during the day). This is something that adults find difficult to do, being so busy and careless. He looks around and finds all the adults in the caravanserai sound asleep. He then says to his father, “Oh father, what would have happened if one or two people of all these who are fast asleep had woken up and said one or two prayers.” What makes the scene unforgettable for me is his father’s answer, which explains why Saadi became Saadi. His father says, “Oh my dearest son, it would have been much better for you to fall asleep too and not speak behind other people like this.” It’s not what I do for myself, my religion, and my country that gives me worth. It is what I do for others that gives me value. And it is in this sense that the word “other” looses its meaning and the whole world becomes one.

Favorite Persian poet, writer, or novelist?


Why do you read?

“Read” was the first word that God said to Muhammad. It is the word that started the whole of Islam. Time and place are our prisons. Through reading, we talk with people in distant lands and in times that are not our own. Remember this from Emily?

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

But in another important respect, the question is unanswerable, because it is impossible to say how worse I would have been if it hadn’t been for reading.

Which has given me the world.

Sarvas, Revealed

August 23, 2009

Mark Sarvas’s debut novel, Harry, Revised, which has drawn comparisons to John Updike and Philip Roth, and was a Denver Post 2008 Best Book of the Year, has been published by Bloomsbury and will appear in a dozen languages around the world. He is the host of the acclaimed litblog The Elegant Variation (a Forbes Magazine Best of the Web pick and Guardian Top 10 Literary Blog) and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His criticism has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.

Who are you?

If you mean in the ontological sense, I have no clue. If you mean the more prosaic CV sort of stuff, I’m a novelist, a book reviewer, a blogger and, now, a father, which I enjoy more than any of my prior occupations.

Mark Sarvas (photo credit to Sara Corwin)

Mark Sarvas (photo credit to Sara Corwin)

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Nobility of Spirit

Nobility of Spirit

Yikes. Oddly, I can’t say – I’m a judge in a contest and it’s all hush-hush just now. (20 books to read by September.) Well, I suppose there’s – no, I can’t say that one either, it’s slated for review in the Times. Well, I can point you to a marvelous book I’ve talked about quite a bit at my blog called Nobility of Spirit – it’s a paean to Big Ideas and it’s one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in ages.

How does your reading day begin?

Email, sadly. (It should begin with something like Proust, no?) Then my browser home page is the NY Times, so I poke around there. I check out Andrew Sullivan. Then I open my feedreader and see what the blogs I like are up to. After my coffee is usually when I tuck in with an actual book. And it’s often disrupted by the mail call, which always brings new and exciting things to distract, um, tempt me.

Sarvas' softer side caught here after his 71st reading of Othello.

Sarvas' softer side caught here after his 71st reading of Othello.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

Othello. I would clue him to what Iago is up to. Every time Desdemona is killed, I cry like a little girl. (And having a little girl now, I know of what I speak.)

When it comes to books or readers, what’s your greatest pet peeve?

Oh God, where do I begin. My sister drives me nuts – she doesn’t keep anything she reads. That’s hard to bear. But my greatest pet peeve, I suppose, is when I see what I consider mediocre work being bathed in over praise, books like The Lovely Bones whose cloying mawkishness is somehow taken for literary gravitas. Bleah.”

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

Fitzgerald's masterpiece

My agent probably wants me to say my novel, Harry, Revised. The royalties would be nice. But I doubt the level of spiritual sustenance could compare. I’m known for loving The Great Gatsby – it’s the first book I read every year, and every year it truly is new to me. And it’s shorter than the Bible. I think that would be my pick.

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For more on Mark Sarvas and his debut novel Harry, Revised, please visit The Elegant Variation. Today.

The Gift of Reading

August 16, 2009

From no less an authority than the Bible, we learn that in the beginning was the word. Its music delights us, it changes and transports us. But most important — and my inner Mephistopheles will have the final say — it irritates us. From Faulkner, as is the case for Megan, whom you’ll meet shortly, to the sliver in my side, Joyce, that accursed Irishman, the word is a scratch on our spiritual epidermis. Without it, the growth we so rightly desire is quite impossible. So next time you’re irritated by your Faulkner or your Joyce, struggle a little longer, because the pages that infuriate you now might be your beloved later.

Who are you?

Megan McCue, the great emender of mis-spelled words and faulty grammar

Megan McCue, the great emender of misspelled words and faulty grammar

A feminist, mother, former academic and teacher, hobby photographer, West-Coaster, Democrat, reader extraordinaire. Not necessarily in that order.

What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?


The Gift of Rain

I admit, I read a mish-mash of stuff: mysteries, memoirs, short stories, and obviously novels. The last book I would like to say I’ve read for this interview is The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng. A painfully gorgeous book that moved and educated me in so many ways. In truth, however, I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett the other night. Not fluff, per se, and a very good read, but not Shakespeare either.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

Thursday Next, from Jasper Fforde’s series of literary….hmmm…I’m not quite sure how to describe these books. Thursday Next is a Literary Detective in the world of fiction, an alternate universe where the characters of all the books ever written live parallel lives. I would adore joining her in the world of books as she solves the latest literary crime (like when someone mysteriously changes the ending to Jane Eyre).

Who is your idol writer? Why?

belovedToni Morrison. I remember trying to read Beloved in college (for pleasure) and putting it down because it didn’t grab me instantly. It became my favorite book, one that I’ve not only read numerous times, but taught as well. The line “You your best thing” at the end of the novel gets me every time. Morrison explores the toughest issues, yet creates poetry, fantasy and realism all at the same time. My favorite literature moves me and gets me thinking at the same time. I don’t enjoy Faulkner, for example, because he doesn’t do those things for me. Strange, since Morrison is so influenced by Faulkner, but there you go.

Is there a defect in a novel that you‘d give your right arm to correct?

Really, any kind of typos in published books drive me crazy. Even if it’s a library book, I feel compelled to correct them in pen. I also have problems with outdated gender stereotypes, even though I realize that’s ridiculous. I was reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier earlier this summer, and I just wanted to shoot the silly husband — he was such a boor.

What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned from reading?

That reading can shape your inner and outer worlds. I can’t imagine not reading everyday: I read the paper with breakfast, and I often cook dinner with a book on the counter. I’ve always valued an insight by Locke, and it seems appropriate to close with it here: “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”

State of the Word

August 10, 2009

In a 1985 book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that with the advent of electronic media — in particular TV and entertainment news programs — we have become heavily reliant on bright, shiny images. Which are great for selling products, like toothpaste and political candidates, but very bad, indeed, for advancing intellectual discussion and inquiry. I am reminded of Postman because Jason Riley, our featured guest this week, suggests a similar solution to the problem of having our minds devoured by sound bites.

jason r riley reading

Jason Riley

Who are you?

I’m Minnesotan. But at any given moment I’m also a reader, writer, inventor, attorney, painter, traveler, chef, husband, and general Renaissance man. 

What was the last book you read? And how did you like it?

Usually I’m a fiction reader, but I picked up a translation of Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. What a brilliant book. I needed a bit of inspiration, a new perspective, and found it with Herzog’s help. It’s really something special.

He kept a diary while filming Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, and this filming was plagued with the kind of hardships that would have broken anyone. But Herzog believed in the project so truly. He re-wrote the script and re-shot half the film when the original lead (Jason Robards) contracted dysentery and quit.

You can tell in every line that Herzog is a genius. He really achieved a great emotional depth. His phrases take possession with their uniqueness and precision. It’s wonderfully transportive writing. You feel with him: the despair, the humidity, the insects, the screaming lunatic rants of Klaus Kinski (who replaced Robards as Fitzcarraldo).

The book stands on it’s own as a marvelous piece of prose, but also as a triumph of creativity and spirit over nature. To understand all that Herzog went through in creating the film. . . it inspired me. It gave me courage.

How does your reading day begin?

Usually once I sit down on the concrete benches at the light-rail station. Or I’ll stand next to the newspaper dispensers. Just somewhere I can rest my coffee within my peripheral vision. If I’m lucky, I’ll just miss my first train–that’s fifteen more minutes I can spend with the book in the empty station. I started riding the train to work so I’d have that commute time to read.  I’m a slow reader, so I try to sneak a few pages in where ever I can. I want to make sure I capture every word.

Schopenhauer famously argues that music is the art form par excellence for communicating the essence of the world. What do you say in defense of narrative fiction?

Music may be distillation of creative essence, but narrative fiction is more personal. For me, nothing has the power of a book. While I’m a great appreciator of musical and visual arts, a good book allows readers to create their own music and visuals. To both create and feel. No two readers will hear or see a character or a scene in exactly the same way, and I love that — there is no “correct answer” in literature. Once written, the sounds, the sights, the pace of reading… its all for the reader to decide. There are few things in life over which we have such control. 

Music might remind us of a certain time and place, but a book allows us to be in that certain time and place. To be two places (and times) at once: physically reading on the beach in Santa Cruz, while your mind is making a night-crossing with Harry Morgan from Cuba to Key West. Narrative fiction allows for more intellectual involvement. 

Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?

Paper. The crisper and more yellowed the better. I haven’t tried the Kindle yet. I’d probably love it. Though I’m afraid it won’t be quite as interesting as having a wall filled with books. I have a few audiobooks–and they do remind me of being read to as a child–but I like the feel of the paper. The font. The ability to scan the page for the spot I was interrupted at, or to turn back to page one to read the opening lines. To toss it across the room in frustration. Electronics don’t allow for the times when we need to throw something.

What is your favorite unknown or under-appreciated book?

I’m a great admirer of Norman Lewis’ novel The Volcanoes Above Us. He’s perhaps only known for his travel writing in the US, but he’s also written some fictional gems. It’s set in Guatemala in the ’50s, just before the coup, and much of the setting is drawn from Lewis’ own experience. It’s wise without putting forth an authorial agenda. The novel seems especially relevant at the moment, with the situation in Honduras.

Where would you go on your dream vacation and what three books would you take?

Of all the places I’ve traveled, I’ve never been to Paris. Though if it’s a dream, I’d take the time to actually live there, without the worries of seeing the sights and need to return home. In the mornings I’d read at a cafe with proper coffee and maybe a petit pan au chocolat. Then ease into a bar tabac for a glass of wine and another few chapters. 

The books:

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy 

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Why do you read?

Really, it’s just something I enjoy. I love books — outside of a book, there’s nowhere else can you try on another person’s mind for a bit. At the moment, there’s a war on books. Newspapers have eliminated their book review sections. Magazines that formerly devoted two pages to fiction plus two to non-fiction have consolidated to a single page for both. It’s difficult to come by the type of literary commentary that used to stimulate discussion. To read is to be a warrior in that fight.

From Tacitus to Flaubert, and beyond

August 2, 2009

A philosophy major turned essayist and poet, Daniel Pritchard’s favorite books read like a compendium blessed by Harold Bloom. Daniel may be a devotee of Irish-language poets, but he’s just as sure-footed on a broad range of other topics. Indeed, a conversation that nimbly leaps from Tacitus and Bishop to Flaubert and Ellison deserves to be savored. And if you can spot the Sartrean reference below, I’ll give you a well-deserved shout out.

Photo 48

The book with the light in it.

Who are you?

I’m the editor of The Critical Flame, an online book review journal; I write a regular blog called The Wooden Spoon; I am the managing editor of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry & Aesthetics; I’m an essayist and poet; and during the day I work at David R. Godine, Publisher.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Let’s see — I’m currently reading the new edition of Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems, and I just finished Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome. Tacitus was amazing, but quite a challenge in terms of keeping names straight, and understanding the political and social order. The system was all fairly byzantine back then — but I guess not so different than it is today in America. Tacitus recounts the death of Caesar Augustus and the following terms of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, (the chapters on Caligula are lost) and the infamous Nero. It is Roman history for policy wonks: Tacitus is less concerned with the grand movements of empire and more interested in the intrigues of the political realm. One is surprised how eminently translatable so many of the lessons are.

I’m always surprised by the quizzical looks I get when people learn I’m reading Proust. As if I were eccentric, or worse. Surely, poetry lovers are in a whole different category of strange, no?

Oh come on, we can’t be that odd. Poetry gets a bad rap because people stop learning poetry sometime after The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere; if we read as much poetry in school as prose, it would be a far less daunting for the average reader. That being said, somebody is making millions off of Mary Oliver every year.

Care to share some of your favorite verse and explain its significance?

Elizabeht Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

I’ve always loved the poem “Casabianca” by Elizabeth Bishop. Its title & first line is a reference to a little-known poem of the same name, but knowing that reference and context is secondary to enjoying the poem by itself. “Casabianca” is ostensibly about redefining Love as the experience of loving changes the definition for you, outside of your control. If you wanted to pair it with a prose piece, you might choose Raymond Carver’s famed short-story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But the two don’t compare, in my mind — as much as I like that story, Bishop’s poem is beautiful (read aloud) and forceful; and small! brief —  you can take it in whole and revisit the experience over and over.

Go ahead, try for yourself and enjoy:

Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.’ Love’s the son
       stood stammering elocution
       while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
       or an excuse to stay
       on deck. And love’s the burning boy.

What can a John Ashbery do with langauge and experience that a Jose Saramago cannot?

Let’s see, John Ashbery — good question. I’m not really a fan of his work, for the most part. His poems are often willfully evasive, like an inside joke about which you may or may not be the punchline. It’s probably just a personal taste issue.

How about D.A. Powell though? His collection Cocktails is, I think, a modern masterpiece, and what makes his poetry work (besides the language) are the line breaks, stanza breaks, weird punctuation, and juxtapositions of phrases, that beg to be read in several meaningful senses (which obviously isn’t possible in prose, or, when it is attempted, is more laborious than valuable). It is funny, daring, powerful, lyrically beautiful, and brings in all types of cultural reference; really, just amazing and enjoyable work. A bit like James Joyce.

Is there a book on your shelf whose siren call you simply cannot ignore?

Well the book on my shelf that I keep picking up and re-reading is a book of poetry: Geoffrey Hill’s New & Collected Poems (I also have the new Yale invisibleSelected but I prefer the older volume). His is a difficult, brilliant, and worthwhile poetry. But if you really need a novel, let’s see: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which keeps drawing me back and becoming ever more meaningful. It’s one of the fabulous books that really seems to change with every reading. I notice more and more elements that complicate the way I thought about the book, and it is so full of the concerns of the world in which we live that it really does change the way I see our society.

In your opinion, what’s one of the best poetical novels you wish were more widely read?

herzog_jpg_300x1000_q85It’s often said (rightfully or not) that the first poetical novel was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, because it’s written in a stylized prose as opposed to prose that is intended purely for clarity of expression (compare Dickens). On that basis, I’d say that the book I wish were more widely read were Herzog, by Saul Bellow. Bellow is slipping out of favor with readers (and to some degree, except for stalwart James Wood, with critics), for reasons that I think relate more to his late-life conservative cultural politics than to his literary merit. Hezog is beautiful and ruminative; intelligent but not condescending; human, flawed, and brash. It is written mostly in the form of letters from Moses Herzog, the protagonist who is having a breakdown after an ugly divorce, to people real and imaginary, alive and dead, etc.

Actors, comedians, and athletes are often elected to political office. Is there a novelist you think would make a good senator? Explain.

No decent novelist would burden himself with the world of government — which is essentially the business of being for others. Writers are for themselves and their writing, too solitary to shake babies & kiss hands. (Actors are used to being for others, having a different relationship with the audience.) Bad novelists, on the other hand, would love to win an election but would be terrible statesmen, and ought really to give up fiction and write obituaries for a living.