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 http://www.fionasze.com.  

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
–Walnuts
  

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.


The Plot’s the Thing / Wherein We’ll…

January 31, 2010

When I look back on my life, at the teachers and professors who have profoundly influenced me, I can trace with my finger, like so many bright points in the sky, a constellation of people stretching from 1st grade to graduate school. There’s Pat—simply Pat, because that’s how we rolled at the OK Program—and there’s Mr. Burns and Mr. Amlin. Then there’s Moses Moreno and the Dr.’s triumvirate: professors Kaye, Mirvish, and Rich. And finally there’s professor Daryl Koehn (pronounced “cane”) who helped me uncover the splendid treasures of Plato’s dialogues. To read The Republic or The Crito or even The Statesman with Daryl is to develop a whole new appreciation for the glories of literary technique and the luminosity of philosophical argument. What I wouldn’t give to be in a seminar with Daryl right now, reading Plato and teasing out the implications of an ethic of thoughtfulness!

Who are you?

If you mean “What is your job title?”, I am the Executive Director of the Center for Business Ethics in the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas. If you mean “Who are you simply?”, I suppose I’d have to say “I don’t know.” We spend our entire lives finding out who we are. “Know thyself” is not an easy injunction to fulfill. Plus, to some extent, others get to say who we are. As Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are discovering, much to their chagrin, they don’t get to control how history remembers them.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Why did you like it?

White Tiger by Aravnd Adig. The book gripped me from the opening pages, and I continued to think about the plot and the book’s tone for weeks. On the one hand, we know from the start of the book something of what is to happen. On the other hand, I was completely mesmerized by the unfolding answer to the question of why this entrepreneur does what he does. The book explores all sorts of dimensions of the idea of the entrepreneur and raises questions about whether entrepreneurs in modern capitalistic systems are amoral or perhaps even immoral. I also learned a lot about how the caste system functions in India, a subject about which I knew next to nothing.

Do you have any superstitions when it comes to reading?

No, but I have a strong prejudice in favor of plots. I think Isaak Dinesen was on to something when she said that we are witnessing the destruction of the novel, for many modern authors increasingly do not understand how to reveal character through plot. Instead, they settle for building stories around character tics, and I’m not much interested in “quirky” personalities per se. I find that American novelists are especially enchanted by character traits, and so I generally prefer British or other foreign novelists to most American authors currently on the scene.

Do you analyze, size up, or generally interrogate someone’s library when you visit their home? What’s your modus operandi?

I suppose I register whether books are a large part of the person’s life. If the person is a good friend and so won’t mind my snooping, I will browse his or her collection, looking for off-beat titles or for books published by foreign presses.

As far back as Plato, there’s been an uneasy relationship between poetry and narrative fiction, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other. What can the philosopher, in particular, the ethicist, learn from novels?

Well-plotted novels show us that activities have their own trajectories or internal logics. As I argue in my book The Nature of Evil, evil has a quasi-mechanical quality insofar as people get caught up in trajectories that possess logics of their own. In initiating the trajectory, the agent might be said to act from within. But evil has an external dimension to the extent that the activity or behavior takes on a life of its own. For example, once Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s protagonist, takes on the identity of the man he has murdered, he can begin to tell himself he has done nothing wrong. He certainly hasn’t killed anyone because he is Dickie Greenleaf, so how could he have murdered Dickie? His action—the plot—itself makes this logic available to him.

What does Henry James’ novel Turn of the Screw teach us about the nature of evil?

Again the work reveals how and why it is way too simple to equate evil with malicious intention. The governess acts to preserve the authority she must have if she is to be the governess she has been hired to be. We are never told her name—only her title. Without giving away the plot line, I would say that evil—if that is indeed what James is portraying—arises from the individual’s identification with a false self (in this case, a role). That role makes certain choices and actions available to the governess—she can plausibly defend her actions and others are willing to go along with those actions as long as these deeds conform with the social definition of the role. Since each of us is always more than a role, this identification with the false self is inherently unstable and thus anxiety-producing. Yet if we have not opened ourselves up to some other non-ego based form of selfhood, we will cling ever more tightly to the false self, seeking to shore it up with increasingly desperate measures. James is brilliant at showing how that sort of mechanism might work.

Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?

I’ve tried to read Cormac McCarthy but just couldn’t get into his books. I guess I found the writing a bit wooden—too much repetition of pronouns with a choppy cadence. But that’s not to say I might not try him again later. Don’t you find that sometimes a book just doesn’t suit your current mood? Years later, one’s mood has altered, and suddenly a previously shunned work seems luminous with meaning and relevance.

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

Novels aren’t works of religion, so I don’t think any novel could ever “replace” the Bible.


Sentences in a blindly godless world

January 17, 2010

Michael Atkinson is a New York film critic, essayist, poet, and novelist. His most recent novel, Hemingway Cutthroat, which is the second volume in a projected series of books inspired by Hemingway’s literary life, is slated for release in 2010. In addition to Hemingway, Atkinson loves Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, and Ray Bradbury. But what makes Atkinson the kind of bloke I’d want at a neighborhood block party is the pleasure he takes in small things — his love of artisan beer and shellfish, as well as the pride he takes in the fact that his children can identify Timbuktu on a map. For more on Atkinson and his considerable body of work, please visit www.mike-atkinson.com. 

 
 

Michael Atkinson

Who are you?

I have been for the most part a New York-based film critic, for some 15 years, and in that time I’ve gained a little notoreity, I guess, for being both feverishly particular and “two-fisted,” as a colleague put it. But I’m also a longtime poet (with, for now, one volume published, and another on the way), and now a novelist. Mostly I just write, and I’ve had my hand at almost anything you could name that’s made of sentences, from obituaries to limericks to memoirs. What’s more to say? A dad, a homeowner, a stalwart anti-imperialist.

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

Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction — Orwell’s journalism, Hemingway biographies, that sort of thing. A lot of modern fiction bores me — especially the veiled-autobiographical kind that comes out of writing programs. The last book I began and didn’t finish was a Patricia Cornwell mystery — so bad — and the last book I finished was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, first time I’ve picked it up 30 years. And I still love it.

What role does literature play in a blindly godless world?

The question of “roles” is always difficult, particularly in a culture that’s becoming as attention-deficit as a mayfly. What role does literature, or art, play otherwise? Depends on the individual, I’d think. I know this: if it’s time-killing and distractive, “just entertainment,” then it’s not art, and I don’t care for it. I just don’t have the time for “entertainment.” I’ve got 50 years to live at best, so I have to be picky. My perhaps ham-fisted designation of a blindly godless world is born out of political pique, not book-love. If only the world were more concerned with expanding their experience through the work of their fellow citizens (a definition of art?) and not myth systems, we’d all be a lot better off.

In the past 10 years, what’s the best movie adaptation of a novel? Explain.

If you’d ask about the best “book” adaptation, I’d have to say Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, because it is in fact so much more than an “adaptation,” or even a “movie,” or any other category you’d care to put to it. (It certainly puts Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief to shame.) But for novels, it might just be Alphonse Cuaron’s version of P.D. James’s Children of Men, a perfect fugue between wildly resonant narrative and extraordinary real-time filmmaking. And science fiction is, frankly, the best way to address the days of the new millennium, so far.

 
 

Anne Sexton: those eyes, those lips, and that exquisite writerly nose!

Who is your literary lover?

I really wanted Anna Akhmatova until I saw that nose. Otherwise, it’s Anne Sexton. So hot, so crazy.

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

Yes, I would’ve voted for Gore Vidal if I’d had a chance, but only if he promised to keep writing essays. I’d vote for Margaret Atwood, if she’d change her citizenship. Otherwise, Joan Didion, who seems like a natural choice. The first part of this question, however, is a horror.

Of the books you love most, which one is your Chimay Cinq-Cent (for you wine-wussies at there, this is beer at its ambrosial best)?

Turn a page, tip a pint.

Oh, so many. Likening it to the best heady artisanal brew suggests that you can’t partake of it often, but only occasionally, selectively. And that’d be Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Does fiction carry a burden beyond stylistic excellence?

Of course it does — it carries the burden of being ethically sane and of caring more, if only a little more, about the reader’s precious time than it does about the writer’s soul or ambition. But that’s all.

In the last 25 years, what’s the most significant change in the form of the novel?

Solipsism, I’d venture; so many new novelists and arbitrary narratives built of faux-Alice Munro sentences kvetching about childhood memories the only fictional justification of which is that they’re modeled on what happened to the writer at one point. Why editors think readers are interested is a puzzle, because largely, they’re not.


Serial Exploiter of Books

January 1, 2010

Of course, one person does not a sample make. Still, I’m tempted to conclude that speculative fiction, apart from providing a lens through which to view alternate and futuristic worlds, as well as delivering a hefty jolt of pleasure and enjoyment, makes its readers more insightful, more honest, in a word, more truthful. For how else can we explain the virile ease with which Randy Honold, our honored guest this week, lets drop the two most important yet underappreciated words in the male lexicon? Man. Crush. Yep, if only Tiger Woods had read a little DeLillo, a little Saramago, a little Richard K. Morgan, who knows, he might have discovered the pleasures of an innocent, family-preserving bromance.

 

Who are you?  

Spouse of 27 years, father of two grown daughters, assistant dean at DePaul University, teacher of environmental studies and philosophy courses, photographer, music lover, bicyclist. And of course avid reader! What I’m definitely not is a literary critic of any sort, or a good critic of critics. I’m sure much of what I read would be considered perfectly disrespectable by folks with a more refined sensibility.  

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

Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. I’m not sure she succeeded in disclosing anything new and interesting about the near future world she first imagined in Oryx and Crake. Just before that I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. I’m a big fan of his music, I like to bike in cities, so I figured I’d love this. Not so much. When he actually shared his experiences biking in urban areas it was fun. Otherwise, it was intellectually disappointing. The novel I really liked, which I read a couple of months ago, was Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Every page gave me a “wow,” in the same ways that Kundera did for me twenty years ago. At least once every year I come up with an excuse to have my students read Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and that time happens to be right now. It’s become an appendage to my psyche; whatever states I and the world are in when I re-read it are highlighted and reflected back to me with a kind of funhouse mirror effect. Simulacra, pharmaceuticals, toxins, and death — what’s not to love?  

In your opinion, what’s the most neglected literary genre?  

Logic and feeling: eternal paramours

I’m not sure it’s neglected, but I want to gush over speculative fiction. I find some of the stuff that’s come out recently to be really stimulating and smart. Let me mention three authors I’m infatuated with. Per my comment above about disrespectability, I want to give props to Richard K. Morgan. Can I say I have a man crush on him? Violence, sex, iconoclasm, idolatry — he doesn’t hold back on any of it, but nothing is gratuitous. Everything serves the plot and is deployed fearlessly in a neo-noir style. Even though she’s finally getting her due, unfortunately posthumously, Octavia Butler needs to be more widely read. No one else I know has done a better job of imagining future embodiments of gender, race, ideology, and technology. In a style that couldn’t be more different from Morgan’s, she builds insight, hope, and fear in equal measures. I had a chance to meet her at a book signing in the late ‘90’s and when I got to the table could only babble something reminiscent of what that Chris Farley character on SNL (the college radio dj who interviewed that week’s musical guest) would say: “Uh, like I really like your books. Huh – thanks!” Finally, I devour everything Neal Stephenson puts out. I don’t want to count the hours I spent reading The Baroque Cycle, but I don’t regret a minute of it. The Diamond Age is my favorite.  

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?  

Schopenhauer is onto something here. But let’s recall his erstwhile rival, Hegel, and do some dialectical synthesis. I have unending admiration for anyone who can write music, and for anyone who can write a compelling narrative. Thus the highest form of art is the three-minute pop song with a catchy melody and pithy narrative. For me, they go most short stories one better. Sure, the medium is different, but I’ve probably gotten as much out of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, and Aimee Mann as I have from any three authors. I keep twisting these questions, don’t I?  

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

Last evening we saw a production of “Frankenstein” by an experimental theatre group. The director staged the play in the midst of the audience. We meandered around, getting as close to the action as we wanted. Kind of a low-tech holodeck. The experience made me wonder what it would be like to hang out with the monster a while. I’d set the tone by inviting him to talk about the tragedy of existence over a beer, maybe some kuchen, or on a walk through the hills at night. I’d bring him up to speed about present-day scientists’ ability to manipulate life and how his creator’s name is shorthand for technological hubris. I’d share my fascination with the figure of the cyborg in contemporary culture and ask him how he feels being the ancestor of all kinds of engineered mergings of the organic, machinic, and electronic. But if he suggested we partake in some vengeful bloodletting, that’s when I’d quit the program.  

Do you have any pet peeves or superstitions when it comes to books?  

No. I used to treat them as precious commodities, almost fetishizing them. I schlepped boxes of them from apartment to apartment, never got rid of any, and when we bought a house built some bookshelves to display them properly. Then one day when I couldn’t find one I was looking for I realized I lent it to a student years ago and never got it back. And suddenly I didn’t care; I was happy it was in the hands of someone who wanted it too. I’ve come to prefer having things cycle through my life rather than get overly attached to them.  

Why do you read?  

When you get to the point that you can’t not do something — as long as you have the means – some of how you got there is lost forever. Or, the reasons are so tangled up with other things you do or don’t do that you can’t determine what’s what any more. I confess I have a hard time separating the “why” from the “what!” Why do I try to divide my reading between fiction and non-fiction? Why am I so disinterested in most classic, especially American, literature? Why have I been gravitating toward speculative fiction over the last decade or so? I think Aristotle was right that it’s all about flourishing, or what Csikszentmihalyi called flow. I’ve come to realize this is the goal of most of my reading — and whatever else I do — though I know going in whatever buzz I get won’t last. When I finish a novel I recall shockingly little about plot, sequences of events, even characters’ names; what I’m left with is a clump of feelings. I’m a serial exploiter of books for my own temporary pleasures!


David Mitchell

December 11, 2009

David Mitchell is an English novelist who has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, Anthony Burgess, and Huraki Murakami. Mitchell has written four novels and promises to delight readers with a fifth, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which will be released in 2010. His first novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. His next novels, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, were both short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Black Swan Green was long-listed for the same prize in 2006 and won the American Library Association’s Alex Award. In 2007, Mitchell was listed in 16th position between John Mayer and Kate Moss on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People (among artists and entertainers). Beyond his wonderful books and many awards, David Mitchell is a kind and generous man who loves a cup of tea, a warm patch of sun, and a smashing good read.   

Who are you?

An Englishman just turned 40, a dad, a husband, a son, a brother (lower-case), a novelist in the last throes of finishing a long book, pretty much unemployable in any other capacity by now, a negligent gardener, a regular reader, an envier of musicians, a half-decent baker of gluten-free cookies if I do say so myself, an over-imaginative and therefore careful driver, a mostly non-stammering stammerer, a postponer of paperwork, a worrier about the end of the world, white, straight, middle-class, a hoper that life continues after death but a doubter that it does, a gurgitator of embarrassing crap in the presence of famous people whom I admire, university educated for what it’s worth, uncertain of where I stand on many of the intractable political issues of the day because of the validity of opposing viewpoints though Obama came as a blessed relief, curious about a stack of things but right now harpsichords, submarines and the Apollo missions, a beginner at the game of Go. A learner about life. 

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

I spent most of today — a warm, cloudless September day, which is rare in Ireland — reading a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine called Shortcomings. I’m still under its spell. His perception is laser-guided and his talent is humbling.

What books have had the greatest foundational impact on you?

Off the top of my head, and in approximately chronological order, Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Triology, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, Richard Wright’s Native Son, War and Peace, Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Huckleberry Finn, George Perec’s W or Double Vie, a number of poems rather than poets but the Minneapolis poet James Wright deserves a special mention, DeLillo’s Underworld, Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and Chekhov, always Chekhov. I’m sure I’m forgetting dozens. Anything that’s good has a foundational impact, I believe. We evolve.

Do you have any superstitions when it comes to reading?

Not really, but if I’ve enjoyed a book, I like everything to be just right when I read the last few endings. Don’t hurry, and maybe finish it in a patch of sunlight with a cup of Darjeeling with a slice of lime in it.

Have you ever had a freakishly bizarre epiphany while under the influence of a novel?

The end of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility, which throws in the doubt everything you’ve just read, made me momentarily wonder how real I was, and even the city where I read it. (London). Big sections of the book are somewhat ropey, but I’d never read an ending like it.

In your judgment, who was the last worthy winner of the Nobel Prize in literature?

I haven’t read enough of them extensively enough to feel able to grade their relative worthiness. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul was a hell of a memoir, though.

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

Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be unpardonably arrogant to impose my choice on the rest of humanity, especially when so many of the hotel guests — especially in the US, if my impression is correct — draw so much strength from the Bible? Perhaps a non-existent volume called 200 Flawless Short Stories from around the World Nominated by Compassionate Literary Human Beings from every Country Plus a Few Stateless Peoples might be worthwhile, so long as the stories were thoughtfully chosen.

Among living novelists, who’s the best at making the most outlandish premise plausible?

If any premise, outlandish or prosaic, seems implausible then the novel is fatally wounded. Hitchcocks’ plots are all pretty daft when you look closely, but you don’t notice as they sweep you onward. Of course, he’s neither living nor a novelist. (I just came back to this question, having thought of Attwood, whose work is so consumate that her SF-extracted premises don’t feel outlandish, or SF-extracted, in particular, Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crate.)

Is there a novel you despise so much you wish you could will it out of existence?

I’m too aware of my own grunting flaws to go around spending energy despising other peoples’. If you hate something so much, don’t read it and don’t waste head-space on it.

When you see a person reading a book in public, do you try to guess its genre by the way she looks, by her fashion, style, manner? How often are you correct?

No. I’m too curious for mere guesses to suffice — I sidle edgways until I’m close enough to see its title. If I’m in Ireland I’ll just come out and ask if it’s any good or not, and quite often a friendly and nutritious conversation follows.

Mike Silverblatt, host of the incomparable Bookworm

Who’s the most insightful literary critic working today?

I’m sure there are many, but I’m awed by Mike Silverblatt every time I have the pleasure of meeting him for his Bookworm radio program. His understanding of my novels is deeper than my own. There’s a British critic, Boyd Tonkin, whom I have a lot of time for, too — like all the best critics, his passion for books comes ahead of his own ego.

As a novelist, are there certain virtues (or vices) you look for while reading?

Excellence and the execrable announce themselves loud and clear without having to be looked for. Sometimes I find a clumsy sentence and correct it in my head, but lots of non-novelists do the same, no doubt. Since someone I met pointed it out, I notice the cliche of the ‘chiselled face’.

Is reading literary fiction on the decline? Explain.

I’d say not, so long as “literary fiction” is broad enough to include book club choices, in which case I’d argue it’s probably growing. I don’t think in terms of “Literary vs. non-literary” as “Is it any good or not?” I have faith that in the long run people respond to the good stuff.

Is there a book you routinely re-read?

Some long short pieces: Chekhov’s The Duel, Joyce’s The Dead, Conrad’s Youth, the latter being a sentimental and Orientalist (I would understand Asians being irritated by it) but it transports me each time. Certain poets – the Welshman RS Thomas may be one whom I relate to now in a different way than I did five or ten years ago. When my next book is safely in I want to re-read Shakespeare. I imagine I’ll be rereading Colm Tobin and Marilynne Robinson in future years — both writers of books much bigger on the inside than they appear to be on the outside.


On the Importance of Levity

November 29, 2009
Stay! Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak. —Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1 **

The blogosphere is strewn with literary wannabes. There are about 25 book blogs worthy of note. Bookphilia is certainly one of them. Mixing playfulness and analysis with a voracious reading appetite, Colleen Shea cranks out quality material on an almost daily basis. But perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay her is that she teaches boys the hornbook, and by “boys,” I specifically mean me, a wannabe literary blogger who devoutly wishes to be counted as 25 + 1. Don’t get the hornbook reference? No worries—read Love’s Labour’s Lost and you shall see. Because no matter what Colleen says, you definitely have a moral and an aesthetic obligation to do so.

Colleen Shea

Who are you?

A former academic, a current bookstore owner, and, I would like to think, a not entirely illiterate book blogger.

Why should people read Shakespeare? Explain.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class well outside my comfort zone called Chinese and Japanese religions. On the final exam, the essay question was, “Describe the nature of the Tao.” Just thinking about this now, 15 years later, still makes me sweat a little, for the first thing we’re told in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” which is followed by several more variations on this theme of “You can’t talk about the Tao without getting it wrong, so don’t even try.” You won’t be surprised to hear that I choked on that particular essay question.

I feel similarly stuck confronted by this question about why people should read Shakespeare. I have two answers.

My first response is a conditional one. I would say, if you want to know anything about the history of the English theatre, Renaissance English literature, the development of the sonnet, check out Shakespeare – in the context of other texts related to any of these areas of interest.

But my second, and more honest response, the only one I can stand by entirely and without qualification of any sort, is this — people should read Shakespeare because they want to, period. I don’t believe reading anyone’s work should be saddled with any kind of either moral or aesthetic imperative.

What’s your favorite play? Why?

The Winter’s Tale. My love of Renaissance drama really began with this one because it so thoroughly intrigued and confused me. I could go on forever about this play, so I’ll limit my comments to one issue:

I first read this play in an undergraduate course devoted to the man; my professor, damn him to hell, had only one thing to say about Leontes’ irrational jealousy: that we couldn’t say anything about it except that jealousy is irrational. I was 19-years old and didn’t have the critical skills to argue with this lazy assessment, but I knew it was inadequate; indeed, my frustration with this prof may be why I did a PhD!

I’ve since come to believe that Leontes’ jealousy springs from his linguistic deficiencies. While every other character engages in a complex social dance based on the polite and flirtatious rhetoric of the court, Leontes flounders, is awkward, can’t tell when people are sincere and when they’re not. Because he can’t participate in or comprehend the vocabulary of the court – and as the king, he should be the ultimate authority – he becomes exceedingly insecure. Polixenes’ and Hermione’s own talents in this area exclude Leontes from the discourse of power and order he’s supposed to represent. And because he doesn’t understand and can’t use such language, he can only figure and express his jealousy in the basest, almost non-verbal ways – with a lot of suspicious sputtering about perceived sexual impropriety between his wife and his friend.

But really, I love The Winter’s Tale because it’s a good read and works exceptionally well on stage.

Did Shakespeare invent the human as Harold Bloom argues?

I don’t believe so; I would say that had Shakespeare not existed, we would have had to invent him (or someone like him) in order to explain our own humanity to us. Why we need an external (and safely infallible because so long gone) figure to function this way for us is a question I can’t answer.

However, that English-speaking culture in large part defines what is best about itself in relation to a very talented artist is something which is really rather positive, I think. It’s especially positive in the face of western culture’s increasing devotion to all things purely practicable and applicable; to lionize an artist, one who dealt entirely in the lovely, the tragic, the hilarious, and the wonderful, is a sign that we’re not completely lost yet. And at least it was Shakespeare and not, say, Nietzsche, we chose to fill this need – what a terrible world we would now be floundering in if we were all spaking like Zarathrustra!

If you could spend a day with a Shakespearean character, who would it be? And what would you do?

Bottom, of course. His roaring would do me good to hear.

Apart from listening to him roar and perhaps also sometimes speak to me in a monstrous little voice, we would together organize a flash mob. This flash mob would involve 200 people storming the next Liberal (sort of like the Democrats in the US) leadership convention and singing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” and doing the moonwalk and grabbing our crotches. Now that’s behavior that both politicians and modern-day Shakespearean actors can understand.

If N. America were a major player in a drama (!), what is N. America’s tragic flaw?

This tragic flaw business – bah! So, the idea of the tragic flaw comes from classical Greek tragedy, specifically from the word hamartia, which more accurately translates as “tragic error” than as “tragic flaw.”

The implications for an error are quite different from those of a flaw – if we’re flawed, we really have no control over our bad behavior – think of the fable of the scorpion and the frog. But if we’re not essentially flawed, we just make terrible choices with tragic and irreversible consequences – that’s much, much worse, for such devastating actions could potentially have been prevented, had we listened to our family, our friends, or our fool who all warned us against what we were about to do.

Now, about North America. Given its propensity for voting not for the best but instead for the second or third best in any given situation (current US president excluded), its most recent tragic error is crowning Jeanine as America’s Favorite Dancer. Brandon and Kayla were robbed. I really can’t answer this question seriously. It’s too capital E-Earnest. I’m sorry.

What are Shakespeare’s three most important contributions to literary art?

I can’t answer this question very seriously either because I don’t believe in the tautological notion that everything Shakespeare wrote is genius because Shakespeare wrote it. For example, although I enjoy Titus Andronicus very much, it’s so bad it may actually degrade literary art as a whole.

What I think are his most beautiful pieces or passages are likely very different than other people’s. I will answer this then, both seriously and in silliness:

Serious:

1. That scene in King Lear when Lear is holding Cordelia’s body:

Lear. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!—.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
O, O, O, O.

Edgar. He faints. My lord, my lord!

Lear. Break, heart, I prithee break.

Edgar. Look up, my lord.

Kent. Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. [Lear dies]

2. Measure for Measure. All of it. I can’t say why or we’ll be here all day.

3. Othello’s final speech to Desdemona right before he kills her. The combination of tenderness, ruthlessness, and regret is truly overwhelming, in a disturbingly beautiful sort of way.

Silly:

1. The word “newfangled.”

Keanu at home in the Matrix having downloaded the appropriate software: "I know Hamlet."

Keanu, having downloaded the appropriate software: "I know Hamlet."

2. Allowing the world to see Joe Fiennes as Shakespeare, semi-naked, with ink-stained hands.

3. Allowing any semi-literate actor to become more famous by stomping and roaring their way through text they don’t understand (yes, Keanu, I’m talking to you!!).

Does Shakespeare compete with the Bible as a spiritual wellspring?

Unfortunately, those seeking spiritual solace tend, with both the Bible and Shakespeare, to extract pithy snippets completely from their contexts, thus altering their intended meaning for their own purposes. For example, everyone’s favorite, “To thine own self be true,” is uttered by a rather doddering old fool as part of an extremely long and contradictory list of platitudes to a rather impatient young man trying to be on his way.

Similarly, people love to remind us that “The quality of mercy is not strained” but fail to remember (or ever learn to begin with) that Portia utters this phrase at the beginning of a speech which is successfully designed to ruthlessly strip Shylock of every penny and social capital he has left. The irony of state-sanctioned, racially motivated abuse being wrapped in the rhetoric of mercy is excruciating.

I would like to suggest as new options for the spiritual edification of the world, the following phrases, divorced of context and explanation, from the works of William Shakespeare:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.”

“Put out the light, and then put out the light.”

“Sirrah!”

“O thou thing!”

“Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

“You whoreson cur!”

“Alack, alack, alack!”

“He teaches boys the hornbook.”

# # #

** As I prepare to post Colleen’s interview, Bookphilia may have given up the ghost. I say “may” because, although the site is currently unavailable, I have a sneaking suspicion that Colleen will roll back the stone and resurrect it. At least that’s my fervent hope.