Against Bullshit

February 28, 2010
When you see the world aright, every road leads to Damascus.

In case you’re wondering, there are eleven kinds of readerly desire. There’s pleasure, always a powerful motive, and humor and curiosity and insight. Then there’s change or enlightenment or spiritual transformation, call it whatever you’d like. I’d name the six remaining types of desire, but as you can see, it’s not always easy to call things by their right name. Besides, when you behold the crown jewel of readerly desire—grace without God—you lose interest in numbers, in counting this, that, or the other thing. Instead, you search for a book that entangles you in the world and makes you better for it. Which brings me to this week’s guest. Meet Warren. In the long ago, Warren had a conversion experience while coming through a field of golden rye…

Who are you?

I am a super physically active person, so when I am not moving, I am reading. How many peoples’ reading habits destroy their romantic relationships? I wonder. I have been skateboarding for about 25 years. My friends and I have traveled all over the world in search of new skate spots. Mexico, Europe, Russia. Addicted? Confirmed. Surfing for about the same time. Addicted? Guilty. Extended wilderness trips backpacking, kayaking, cycling. My friend and I rode our bikes from the west coast to east coast the summer of 2007. I hiked 170 miles of the John Muir Trail in the Sierras solo. Spent two weeks of autumn in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior kayaking and camping. I recently swam from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park for a South End Rowing Club event.

Do you read on your adventures?

During my travels, I always have a book with me. Sometimes I will take something like Jack London (Martin Eden, Smoke Bellew, The Call of the Wild, Burning Daylight, The Sea Wolf) or Hemingway (For Whom the Bells Toll, Islands in the Stream, To Have and Have Not). These are some of my favorites of all time. Other favorites include Hemann Hesse, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Maxim Gorky, Edward Abbey, Steinbeck. God the list goes on. A guilty pleasure of mine is to take a fantasy/sci fi book as well. Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Robert Howard’s Conan, George R.R. Martin. That stuff will blow your mind when you are alone at night in a tent and two days walk from civilization.

As a backpacker, your gear better have dual purposes. What’s the most creative use to which you’ve ever put a book, besides reading it?

Most times I use the books I bring along for a pillow and a camera stand. Sometimes I might use the endpages as fire starter. Have you ever read the Count of Monte Cristo? One time I used that beast to guy out my tent after I lost some tent stakes.

Working at one of the finest used book stores in the Bay Area, where you see hundreds of thousands of books, how the hell do you decide what to read next?

Well, you ever notice how books seem to find you? It’s like that except books are like wolverines, and you are stuck in the snow with no place to hide. Actually, I just keep my eyes and ears open. Say that a person brings in three boxes of books to sell. Well, if I start seeing books that I have read, I start looking at the other authors and titles they have. Bingo. Sometimes regardless of subject matter, I’ll read the first page and if I like the writing style, that’s all it takes. Style is what gets me.

Any recent wolverine attacks?

Have you ever read Kirby Wilkins? He teaches at Cabrillo College. Vanishing is a collection of his short stories that points a crooked finger at the futility of existence, and laughs in its face. He has style for miles. Another fantastic author I recently read is an Everyman’s Library collection of novels by Richard Yates. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, The Easter Parade, and Revolutionary Road. This is easily the best stuff I have read this year. You have got to check this guy out. He will kick you in the balls and then make you grateful for it. Great, great stuff.

Is the bookstore your library, or do you squirrel books away at home?

Working in the bookstore is absolutely brutal for my financial status in this world. I spend a money weekly in order to feed my habit. But, believe it or not, I do not collect books. I have maybe 20-30 titles at a time that I trade in or lend out (you never really get books back, do you?). Sharing is caring.

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

It’s a toss up between Jack London’s character Burning Daylight, racing across the Alaskan tundra on a dog sled to the next gold stake; Rafael Sabatini’s Dr. Peter Blood on the high seas, or Robert Howard’s Conan, sneaking into some evil sorcerer’s castle to rescue a kidnapped princess.

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

That’s a tough one. I guess aside from teaching me how to relax and let go of all the bullshit, reading has taught me to see the world with my imagination. If you turn your back on imagination, you lose it.

Apropos of Salinger’s death, when did you first read Cather in the Rye? What kind of impact did it have on you? And what do you remember most about it?

Oh man, Salinger. I was 25. I actually read Nine Stories before any of his other books. After the first story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” I was hooked. I read the Catcher in the Rye along with Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, that same week. Holden Caulfield, with his sarcastic, bitter voice, became an instant hero of mine. He made me want to walk away from everything. To be free. To thumb my nose at society and its inane rules. In a way, I did. I quit my job, I ended a two-year relationship, I moved to another house. I vowed to live differently—and did. Mr. J.D. Salinger, for the well being and integrity of the literary world, I hope, when they bust open his vault, they find nothing, except maybe a picture of him showing the world his middle finger.

Why do you read?

I think books have kept the wheels turning and my imagination hungry for the next adventure. This is why fiction lures me in. It is the adventure. The thought that it just might be real. The feeling, that you don’t know what is around the next corner. It might be the love of your life or the Grim Reaper in a recliner tipping a pint.

Transgressing the world

February 14, 2010
Toughest to travel is the distance between two people. —Fiona Sze-Lorrain

What’s in a hypen, that great unsung hero of punctuation? Well, in the case of Fiona Sze-Lorrain, a lot. Fiona is a writer and an editor. She is a bridge between Asian-French and American cultural landscapes. And she lives in both France and New York City and is a translator and a solo zither concertist, to boot. In addition to connecting these seemingly different worlds, Fiona is also a poet whose work was recently published by Marick Press. Water the Moon is a slim, elegant volume of poetry marked by a yearning for intimacy. Of course, before anything else, before being a concertist or a poet or a taut hyphen between two cultures, she’s an eclectic reader who enjoys novels, memoirs, folk tales, historical narratives, and mythologies. For more on Fiona, please visit  

Who are you? 

I don’t know who I am, but what I am, yes! A wife of an authentic, exigeant Frenchman who has been leading a profound and artful life since the 1960s, live in Paris, divide time in New York, born in Singapore, of mixed cultural heritages, an aspiring cook and baker who tackles different facets of French gastronomy, conscientious about saving every tree, plant and paper, “analyze” first-edition books, write poetry, edit a magazine, pluck an ancient Chinese zither and play Bach for a couple of hours everyday, practice script calligraphy, in the midst of working on a French critical monograph on Gao Xingjian’s theatre aesthetics…  

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

Against the Grain (À rebours)

There were a couple of books that I just finished reading; a French novel, a Russian memoir (translation), and two other English titles: À rebours (1884) by J-K. Huysmann, which is a hallucinating and mystical classic; the humbling and inspiring Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstram; Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin by Maeve Brennan (whose lucidity I enjoy), and a thick but worthy biography on Victor Hugo by Graham Robb.  

How important are imagery, meter, repetition, and other poetic devices in your enjoyment of novels?  

Poetic devices? I’m unsure how exactly, though I’m sure somehow and somewhere they do play a role! Power of images, an attractive and confident voice, the style of embedding narrative moments within paragraphs… these help me to better enjoy novels.  

Can you say a little about your interest in “subversive” literature — and perhaps suggest a book or two (or three) for global citizens to read?  

Perhaps we may have different understandings of the notion “subversive” — by that, I do read and mean it as “transgressive.” Any form of literature that is pacesetting, I believe, must transgress. What is “subversive” and what is not — beyond cultural differences and time difference? Who should decide the definition of “subversive,” when the word itself carries a world without limits? Is André Breton’s Nadja subversive? How about Marquis de Sade? Lolita? D.H. Lawrence? Writings by Karl or Groucho Marx? One of my all-time favorites is Living My Life (1931) by Emma Goldman. Try the Bible. Is it “subversive”? Well, I have four copies of it, in three different versions and languages. I do not recommend The Little Red Book of Mao Tse-tung.  

Who is one of your favorite poets, and what does he/she do with language and experience that a novelist like Gao Xingjian or Virginia Woolf does not?  

Poetic voices that return to me constantly over the years are many: Wislawa Szymborska, Pierre Reverdy, W.H. Auden, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, Hai Zi, Theresa Cha, James Wright, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, André Breton, Su Dongpo… Poets whose work inspire me greatly happen to be very strong prose writers, too. Breton’s Poisson soluable (The Soluable Fish) is a strong example. At first glance, novels and poetry are entirely different beasts, but they’re really looking for the same piece of meat. Perhaps a poet goes for intensity and concentrated visuality, while a novelist exercises patience of unraveling narratives and poeticism over varying moments of originality, impulses, instincts, and addiction. Virginia Woolf, for instance, clearly explores poetry in her novels, aesthetically and contextually. The Waves, for me, is a hybrid work, meandering between prose poetry and fiction. How her language delves into conflicting streams of consciousness (or narrative voices) and blocks of musicality rendered purely by language work is totally unpredictable. Each different read brings different surprises and discoveries. Ultimately, I guess a novelist, just like a poet, seeks time (with a capital “T”) and timelessness in terms of an experience, both from the perspectives of a writer’s and a reader’s. Honestly, I hedge the question a little simply because both a poet and a novelist are writers, concerned with writing as a process. They believe in language as a bird with mighty wings, even though they see different skies.  

How do you bookmark pages, leaf, string, feather, dog ear, shoe lace, or some other newfangled device?  

I bookmark pages with colored pens, pencils, crayons, teaspoons, chopsticks… and tiny pieces of paper like outdated receipts and metro tickets. No, I do not dog ear. I think that is a sin (!), an act of negligence and disrespect to a book as an organic object that has a life and dignity of its own. That said, guess what?! I have indeed committed this crime/sin before … to secondhand books, for example, and worst, to books that I borrowed from public libraries! (I have confessed and have turned over a new leaf since those times of “delinquence.”)  

What are the ideal conditions for you to read with enjoyment?  

Quiet moments of solitude in a winter afternoon, by a fireplace, in my lavender armchair, with the biggest mug of richly textured chocolat chaud** (i.e. the kind you find at Brasserie Lipp) and magnifique, palm-sized macarons à la noisette bought from the artisanal Viennese pâtisserie at rue de l’École de Médicine in the Latin Quarter. Alas, I don’t think I am capable of reading with undivided attention in Jardin du Luxembourg, where Parisians dogwalk or jog half-naked, with our American counterparts (i.e. tourists) exclaiming in the heart of the city. 

Is there an author you wished had the ear of President Obama?

J.K. Rowling (the left ear) and Li Po (the right ear).  

Do you ever kiss a line, a page, a cover of a book?  

No. The smell of a book is something sensual to me, though. A book is like a man, a lover, a night… n’est-ce pas?  

Why do you read?  

I read to escape; I write to confront.  

# # #  

**Like most addicts, I don’t play favorites with my obsessions. Between my love of books and 72% cacao, I’m a happy, go-lucky bigamist. So when Fiona drizzled “chocolat” in her description of solitary bliss, I got hungry. In case you did, too, here’s Fiona’s favorite recipe:  

Chocolat Chaud  

–1.5 cups of milk
–6.5 ounces of good quality, semi-sweet chocolate, finely powdered or chopped
–A teaspoon of brown sugar
–Coarse salt (optional)
–Whipped cream

1. Heat up milk mixed with chocolate and a teaspoon of brown sugar and dash of salt until boiling.  

2. Then simmer and stir thoroughly, adjusting heat as needed. Simmer for three minutes for a rich texture. Serve with whipped cream, sugar, and walnuts, to taste.