Tag Archives: books

36 Down, 14 to Go: John Weatherford’s Quest for 50 Books in 52 Weeks

23 Sep

Back in May, we asked John Weatherford about the first four months of his attempt to read 50 books in a calendar year. Our last interview covered his list, his plans, and the difficult mountain of books he faced in the final two-thirds of 2009. We asked him if we could check in when September rolled around, and here we are. John answered our questions about reading during the summer, reading about food, keeping current with the bee keeping world, comparing fiction to famous painters, exploring the world, and finishing what he started.

Dove&Snake: When we talked to you in April, you were at 16 books. Your most recent blog entry shows Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round as number 34. Mathematically, you picked up your pace a little over the summer. Did reading over the summer feel any different than the first four months of the year?

John Weatherford: The big thing in the summer is that there are far fewer distractions than the rest of the year. TV is not really worth watching, and it is so hot outside that I don’t feel conflicted about sitting around inside the air conditioning.

D&S: You’ve read a lot about food. Why is that a subject of interest for you?

JW: I didn’t exactly grow up with good healthy eating ideals instilled in me. Lately, I have been making some changes, so I have enjoyed reading some good, well thought-out defenses for eating the foods God put on the planet for us versus the foods we cooked up in a lab.

D&S: Your blog entry from August 23 is particularly interesting. I’ve got a few questions based on that one. First, you said reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire was “the first time this year, possibly in [your] entire life [you] read 2 consecutive books by the same author.” Is there any particular reason you wanted to read two books in a row by Pollan?

JW: Basically, I had two books left by Pollan. After I read the first one, I really wanted to go ahead and finish.

D&S: Also, you mentioned, as a sort of disclaimer for your thoughts on that book, that you “subscribe to several seed catalogs as well as bee keeping catalogs.” How did you find out about them? What made you so interested in them that you decided you wanted them delivered to your home on a regular basis?

JW: I grew up with seed catalogs and plant and gardening books as a fixture of my surroundings. I suppose I wouldn’t feel right without flipping through this year’s catalog each February. I don’t really have a way to put the information to use, but I figure that shouldn’t stop me. The bee keeping catalogs were just a passing fancy. I went through a phase a few years ago where I read a bunch of books about bees and bee keeping. From that came a desire to keep bees someday. It probably won’t happen, but I guess I’ll keep up on the current trends just in case.

D&S: The last question from that entry pertains to the heart of your quest. You identified August as your “late summer slump.” What do you think caused that slump? Have you come out of it yet?

JW: Yes, I am out of it. I think I just got tired of reading. It was bound to happen. When you do things out of obligation they will eventually become a chore, but even that will pass.

D&S: You read two issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. In your response to McSweeney’s 14, you compared the short fiction in that volume to art you saw in museums when you were a kid in a very specific way: “I could have done it. But I didn’t.” What about the fiction in McSweeney’s left you with the feeling that you could write those same kind of stories?

JW: I really meant that as a complement more than a critique, but it might not have come off that way. I suppose that there was nothing in those stories that would have been outside of my ability to write, but I was trying to say was that even if I could have written them, I didn’t. I didn’t have the inspiration to think those thoughts, I didn’t have the dedication to see them through, I didn’t have the courage to put them down on paper, and I didn’t have the tenacity to see them through to publication. Anyone could paint a Rothko with a little practice, but would you? And would you fully commit to it even if you did paint it? Probably not.

D&S: Have you ever wanted to write a short story? What has kept you from doing so?

JW: I suppose I have, but it definitely doesn’t compel me. I’m pretty visual so maybe if it was a graphic novel or a children’s book with illustrations. I’d definitely consider writing non-fiction.

D&S: You didn’t respond in that same way to the other fiction you read over the summer (two by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and one by Chip Kidd). What was the difference between these novels and the McSweeney’s fiction?

JW: With the Kidd book, I think I felt differently because the author has such a different life experience that there is no way that I could see things from the same point of view as he has. With the Garcia Marquez, I feel like he is operating on a completely different plane that other writers so I sort of feel like nobody is going to touch that stuff. I suppose if anyone could paint a Rothko, then no one could ever have painted Guernica, except Picasso himself.

D&S: You read How to Be an Explorer of the World and indicated that some might not even think it should count in your quest for fifty because it’s a light read full of 59 challenges “designed to increase your imagination, problem solving, story telling abilities, and overall hipster appeal.” Did you act on any of those challenges? What was the result?

JW: No, but I have a few planned to conquer once the year of reading is finished.

D&S: You read a book about your own faith and a book about a different faith. What did you learn about your own worldview, spirituality, and theology as a result of digging in to not only your own beliefs, but those of others?

JW: I’d say I was confronted with the lack of dedication that is expected of me by my culture. If I were a Muslim in a nation governed by an Islamic majority there would be so many more cultural expectations placed upon me. I guess being a Christian in the United States is “easy.” I don’t really like easy. It makes me uncomfortable. The thing is that with all of my cultural freedom, I have to hold myself to a high standard, and I have to live my life to my standards whether I am being called on it or not.

D&S: What do you have next on your list?

JW: I have read two more books since then, and I am almost through a third book on adoption. I am planning on reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies soon, and possibly another McSweeney’s.

D&S: By that count, you only have fourteen left to go. Do you think you’ll be able to get to fifty books by December 31?

JW: I will do it. It probably won’t be easy with the holidays coming up, but I am going to make sure it gets done.


Extra Extra: An Interview with Matthew Helmke

14 Sep

Matthew Helmke let us publish one of his short stories in Issue No.2. He was also gracious enough to answer some question we had about Morocco, supernatural beings, people who believe in supernatural beings, setting stories down in books, and publishing those books yourself.


Dove&Snake: Your story in Dove&Snake Issue No.2, “A Wife from the Mountains,” is from a book you wrote called Nowhere Else to Turn. What is the basic premise of that book?

Matthew Helmke: The book retells stories of interactions that various Moroccans, who I met firsthand, have had with the supernatural. I published it as fiction solely because I added some details to certain stories to make them longer and fuller, or because I changed some details to protect the identity of the source. All of the stories were experienced either by me with a Moroccan or were told to me directly by the person claiming to experience it.

D&S: “A Wife from the Mountains” mentions something called jinn. What are jinn?

MH: In Islam, jinn are spirit beings that can be either good or bad, may fear God or serve themselves. Like men and women, they are created beings. However, as men were made from earth, jinn were made from fire or smoke, depending on who tells you the story. They will also either go to Hell or Paradise, just like humans, depending on their actions and God’s mercy on the Day of Judgment. Belief in them is pervasive in Moroccan, Arab, and all Islamic societies. They are considered common knowledge, but not talked about terribly often out of fear of reprisal from the jinn who may not want to be exposed. They are different from angels or demons, which are explicitly good or evil.

D&S: How did you first hear about jinn? When you first encountered stories like this, what was your reaction?

MH: I believe the first time I heard of them was from the story of Aladdin, which in English uses the term “genie.” There was also the tv show called I Dream of Jeannie. In those contexts, I reacted as kids usually do to stories of supernatural beings (like fairies, elves, etc.) and simply thought they were a cool addition to the mythical creature lexicon. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that not only do people believe in jinn today, but that some do so quite deeply.

D&S: What was your first encounter with a jinn story in Morocco?

MH: I honestly don’t remember the first time I heard about jinn in Morocco. It was very likely within days of my arrival, as they are mentioned in conversation regularly (both seriously and in jest). We did have a lady that came to the house once a week to help clean, and she would not put hot water down any drain in the house because she was convinced it would anger the jinn that live in the drains.

D&S: How often did you hear stories like those in your book, the supernatural told as matter-of-fact?

MH: These kinds of stories are extremely difficult for a foreigner to hear. Moroccans are generally reluctant to talk about them, either out of fear of the jinn, which all other Moroccans know about anyway, or out of fear that the foreigner will lose respect for the informant and think they are either crazy or superstitious.

D&S: If it’s difficult to hear these stories as a foreigner, how did were you able to collect so many?

MH: The first step involved learning Moroccan Arabic well enough to convince people that they could talk with me and I would comprehend them. This also meant learning a lot of cultural subtext and the meaning of many idiomatic expressions. Second, I had to convince people that they were not going to be mocked, regardless of what they told me. To do this, I would try to build bridges by discussing stories, ideas, and other things I had heard about the supernatural and clearly state that I believe the events we were discussing could happen–not necessarily that they did, but that they could.

D&S: How do you view stories like this in the context of your own spirituality and theology?

MH: I think there are several possible answers to this. First, there are times when unexplained events may have natural causes that are simply undiscovered, so I would be careful not to take every supernatural story at face value. However, there are also things that happen that cannot be explained by any known natural occurrence. What then? I think it is probable that these could have supernatural cause. I mentioned building a bridge with my Muslim friends for these discussions–this is part of the bridge. I believe the supernatural realm exists, not so much in the woo woo, X-Files sense, but in the Biblical sense. I believe angels exist, demons too. Jinn aren’t mentioned in any Christian context, but could certainly fit in as a subcategory of demon. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers and that I believe there is a God, etc., forces me to confront the possibility that there is more to this world than what may be observed by and proven with the scientific method.

D&S: Is Morocco a highly spiritual place? Do most of the people believe in the supernatural?

MH: Morocco is an Islamic country where all but 0.8% of the people are Muslim. By definition, Muslims believe in the supernatural. Morocco is also a place where Islam has been mixed with pre-existing animistic folk religion and other non-standard Islamic practices and beliefs. A belief in the supernatural is pervasive in the society, but not universal. It would be reasonable to estimate that at least 80-85% of Moroccan people believe in the spirit world and that God, angels, demons, and jinn are active.

D&S: How does that belief in the activity of God, angels, demons, and jinn, play out in the everyday lives of Moroccans?

MH: It really depends on the person. The answer would be very different if we were to discuss an urban-dwelling, university educated Moroccan scientist versus a rural, uneducated farmer. I will say that, on the average, people in Morocco are far more open to the possibility of the existence of the supernatural realm than people in America or Europe. For many, they will make a verbal assent to the existence of jinn, etc., but not give them much thought. Many others will make a point of avoiding behaviors that the culture says will offend the jinn, just to make sure they are safe. This is what the entire book is about: exploring the differing perspectives on the supernatural that exist within diverse parts of the culture of Morocco through stories told from many different perspectives.

D&S: What made you decide to set these stories down in a book? Most people would have just kept them as interesting anecdotes to bring up in conversations.

MH: Primarily, there are almost no examples in print of these sorts of anecdotes in English (there may be in French, but I didn’t find any), and I had the permission of my sources to record their stories. Second, these sorts of stories and beliefs are difficult for foreigners to learn about because of the things I mentioned earlier, but they are vital to understand if one wishes to adequately understand, communicate with, and engage the culture. So much of Moroccan culture will make more sense to people experiencing it for the first time or living in it if they have read the book or heard these sorts of stories.

D&S: Where did you look for stories like these in French?

MH: Bookstores, libraries, and online. I’m afraid that most of what I found was rather belittling in tone, and that made it less useful for my purposes. The French literature I encountered primarily took the view of “Isn’t this quaint?” and were attempts to document the beliefs of the “backward, but noble savages.” Perhaps other materials exist in French, but I didn’t have the pleasure of finding it.

D&S: Why did you self-publish the book and not try to go the traditional publishing route?

MH: I self-published the book for two reasons. First, I wanted the book to be accessible to as many students of Moroccan culture as possible and decided to license the book in a special way (using Creative Commons license) to allow people to make copies of it and share them or to make derivate works (like study guides or recordings) without fear of lawsuits (see the book’s license section for more information). Also, I didn’t feel that a major publisher would be interested in publishing a book that wasn’t likely to be a best seller even though the information was of high quality and worth publishing. However, by publishing myself and using a print on demand company, I can list the book on Amazon and make it available and easy to find for people with an interest in the topic (and I’m selling approximately one copy every two days, which is better than I anticipated).

50 Books in 52 Weeks: Interview with John Weatherford, Literary Adventurer

18 May

John Weatherford is trying to read 50 books this year. We’re well into the fifth month of 2009, so that means John has been at it for the first third of the year. He started a blog so the rest of us can follow his progress, but we wanted to dig a little deeper into how the literary adventure is going; John obliged.

Dove&Snake: Where did you get the idea to read fifty books in a calendar year?

John Weatherford: I guess I just wanted a challenge, and I was typically reading around 25-35 books a year, so I figured 50 would be a challenge. I didn’t want to make it so ridiculous that all I did was read, but I wanted to have to sacrifice some things in order to make it happen.

D&S: You started off with a specific list of books to read this year. How did you pick those books?

JW: The list started as basically a list of every book I owned or had borrowed that I had never read. That only made about 35, so the rest I got off of PaperBack Swap. I just got books that were available now and that I had been meaning to read, or were socially significant books that I felt foolish for not having read.

D&S: Have you wanted to change that list at all? Are you going to stick to those books only?

JW: I have already changed the list a lot. I have read 6 or 7 books already that weren’t on the list at the beginning of the year. I’m okay with that. I was going to stick to the list so that I would decrease my surplus book supply, but sometimes a book comes along and you know that you need to read it at this point in your life. So I grant myself the freedom to divert from the list.

D&S: What books came along that you just had to read?

JW: In Praise of Slowness and a book I am currently reading called An Army of Davids. They were books I put on my wishlist on PaperBack Swap as soon as I joined and when I finally got them, I couldn’t wait to start reading them.

D&S: Are there any books on your list that you were especially looking forward to reading when you made your list?

JW: The book I was most looking forward to reading was Moby Dick. I haven’t gotten to it yet. I don’t think I will cut that one, but you never know.

D&S: Are you allowing yourself re-reads?

JW: I am not allowing re-reads in my 50 books total. There are a few books that will be required reading for me, but I just throw them in on top of the 50 non-required reads I am trying to do.

D&S:What books are required reading?

JW: I am reading Rocking the Roles again. It is a book about marital roles that my wife and I are going through with another couple. I anticipate that there will be other books that I will re-read with some other people in the near future.

D&S: Does it bother you when you’re reading something that’s not on your list?

JW: It doesn’t bother me. I try not to be tied down to obligations. I just kind of roll with whatever comes along.

D&S: Are you on the pace you hoped you would be at by this time of the year?

JW: I am on pace. Right now I would be at about 49 books for the year if I keep this pace up, but I always get more reading done in the summer, so hopefully that means I am ahead of pace. I would like to be 2-3 books ahead by the end of September if possible.

D&S: This isn’t your first time attempting to read 50 books in a year. How does your 2009 50 books quest compare to 2007 and 2008?

JW: I read 38 books in 2007 and 40 in 2008, so I am steadily improving. Last year I got behind pace early and gave up on the 50. Then I got laid off from my job in June and read 14 books in 8 weeks. I probably could have done it last year if I hadn’t given up so quickly. Live and learn, I guess.

D&S: How many total books did you read from January to April?

JW: From January 1 through April 30 I read 16 books.

D&S: Total pages?

JW: Some of the books are no longer in my possession thanks to PaperBack Swap, but I would guesstimate about 4000 pages, give or take a few hundred.

D&S: As the year has progressed, has it been easier or more difficult to keep up the pace?

JW: Definitely more difficult. It gets to be a real drain on my time and my brain starts to rebel, I think. I usually have no problem reading, but as the year goes on, it gets more and more challenging. It is really hard not to see it as an obligation and to let myself enjoy the adventure. It often feels like a job, like if I don’t clock my hours for the day someone is going to report me. I’d say that has been the biggest surprise to me. It isn’t bad, I enjoy struggling through things. I think it is good for character, I just wasn’t expecting it.

D&S: How does your blog help you keep going?

JW: It keeps me accountable. I know people look at it and I don’t want to have to say I gave up. I really like to finish things, and I am very deadline driven. Knowing others know my deadline helps me keep motivated.

D&S: Can we check in with you in September for an update on the second third of your year-long literary adventure?

JW: Definitely check in. It will keep me honest.

I Was Too Intrigued With Clouds

23 Mar

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll post some content related to the almost-ready Dove&Snake Issue No. 2. Here’s a little something from the travels of Matthew Helmke, whose story “A Wife from the Mountains” appears in both Nowhere Else to Turn, his self-published book of supernatural tales from Morocco, and our soon-to-be-available pages:

“Get up! You’re going to be late!” Oh, if I had a penny for every time I heard those words. Sigh. Here we go.

I rise, wipe the crispy remnants of sleep from my eyes, and attempt to face the day. Through the fog I feel about for my glasses.

Oh, yes. My glasses. How they once defined me! I remember the day I received my first pair, walking out of the optician’s shop filled with wonder and the strange, new world around me.

“Look! You can see the leaves on the trees!!” I exclaimed, repeatedly reminding my well-meaning parents of just how blind I actually was. How sad they must have felt. To tell the truth, I didn’t notice. I was too intrigued with clouds, with the odd new perspective with which the world appeared to me, and with remembering the words of the optimetrist as he fitted my frames: “Be careful. It will take a few days for your eyes to adjust. Things will look a bit odd for a while.”

He was right. Doors looked crisp and clean, but strangely bowed toward me at the center. The sidewalk seemed to move at unexpected times and in directions I could not anticipate. My entire perspective had shifted.

The doctor was right. It took some time to adjust, to adapt myself to a newfound clarity of vision.

How often has this been repeated in my life? I can’t really answer that. I mean, there were the constant physical changes that always took me by surprise during adolescence, the days when my shoes suddenly wouldn’t fit and I would spend all day tripping over myself. There was the time in my late 20s when I had eye surgery, laser vision correction, which eliminated my need for glasses. That last one was freeing, but neither of these had the impact of the day I first saw the world clearly.

Is that how life is intended to be lived? I kind of think it is. We innocently pass the time, believing we see things as they are, then suddenly, and with no real warning, we receive a gift. Our eyes are opened and we gain a perspective and a clarity that we never had before.

I live for those moments. I long for them. I realize that there is so little about this world and the next that I truly comprehend and something within me screams out, “There must be more! What am I missing? What am I not seeing here?!” I pray. I read. I ask questions. Sometimes the search is easy, sometimes it is not. Regardless, the question compels me and I must search.

Written on the train from Fez to Rabat, February 19, 2008.