In Conversation With …has been a long overdue project I have been wanting to start.. with an aim to reach out to the community and interact more while highlighting amazing people that I come across in this fandom journey.
Here’s to moving the spotlight to yet another book lover, who is also an author for the most recent book I finished reading – Persianality.
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My name is Michael Benzehabe and I’m rolling into the shadowy side of life at 50. Born in Tel Aviv, but since 9, I’ve spent most of my life in the U.S. I’ve worked exclusively as an author for the last 15 years. Lots of reading comes with that career choice, you know, research for the sake of art. That means reading no less than 10 novels per week, plus portions of non-fiction, including white papers and reference material.Then comes Google, YouTube, and Monica Shastri’s blog (I’m a subscriber).
If you’re an artist—a true artist—these are things you do joyfully, because you’re chasing the rarest thing on earth: dream dust. The actual number of read books? I have no idea. A lot.
My favorite genre changes from year-to-year, but for the last few years I’ve been moved by the possibilities in Young Adult. I’m currently reading Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day. It’s a creative testimony to sparse writing. When an author learns how to get out of the way of their story, their characters come to life. If they want to talk, you can feel their heart and hear their breath. I get all that in Labor Day.I prefer to read contemporary fiction on my Kindle Reader. I can highlight and make notes within the platform. When it comes to non-fiction, however, I’m a paper-book guy. Non-fiction means I’m condemned to dusty libraries, reference books, and mean librarians. Poor me.I suppose that means, I fit nicely into Ravenclaw House. In the tower for me, among the blue and bronze.
Given all the above, my most profound goal is to deepen my creativity, while lightening my touch, create stories that have no trace of me—only the primary characters. Just occurred to me how distant all that sounded. So, let me add . . . and meet a lot of nice readers.
When and How did you get into reading for pleasure?
Only when considering the origins of reading does this question make sense to me. For example: What did Mohammad read, before there was a Koran? Something shaped this great thought leader. What did Jesus read, besides Torah? He spent twelve years in Egypt, he must have attended some form of schooling. What did Siddhartha read? He had yet to become Buddha. Without the sayings of Buddha (himself), what was he feeding on that sparked his enlightenment? What did Moses read, since there was no Torah until he wrote it? He was instructed in the courts of Pharaoh. What texts was he instructed by? What did Abraham read? He had no Torah (it hadn’t been written), he had no New Testament (it hadn’t been written), he had no Koran (it hadn’t been written). So, it gives me great pleasure to search for the nuggets of insight that animated these great thought leaders. In my single-digit years, I read Middle-Eastern authors (Gibran, Khayyam, Muqaffa, etc.). In my early teens, I read the Russian authors (Pushkin, Chekov, Tolstoy, etc.). In my late teens, I read humorous American authors (Vonnegut, Berger, Heller, etc.). Lately, I enjoy authors who push the boundaries of creativity (Rushdie, Palahniuk, Asimov, etc.).
Bottom line, I love to watch great minds chase elusive ideas.
“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” –Naguib Mahfouz
Do you have a reading ritual?
I never insult anyone in my company. They always have my undivided attention. I am, however, a voracious reader. In stealth, my ritual is: Keep a book in my car (with color markers); shop with a loaded backpack, (book and color markers); keep a book on my nightstand (with color markers); keep a book on my coffee table (with color markers).Different books, for different circumstances, never letting a slow moment go to waste.
What’s a trope you like to see in books?
All genres contain, at least, a few books about someone on a quest. I want to watch these characters discover, always hoping they will teach me how to climb out of the hole I’m in.
Your go to mantra for overcoming a reading slump?
Stop reading, Take a break. Do other unrelated things. Let your books coax you back into loving them. You don’t have to read all the time just because you’re a reader or a reviewer.
What’s one unpopular bookish opinion you have?
Don’t be intimidated by credentials. Weigh in on all the big ideas. As long as you’ve arranged your logic with valid points of authority, what’s to stop you from having new and better ideas?
Three Favorite Novels?
Mine or those pesky competitors?
Flawed, mentally deficient competitors:
Your favorite bookish merchandise?
Hmmm, guess that depends on my circumstance. In coffee shops, I use my business card as a bookmark. This allows me to share my contact info with new people I meet. Unfortunately, I often lose my place. Ugh!
On a book tour, I don’t always make it to my hotel (bad logistics or I talk too long with strangers). So, I end up sleeping in my touring van. An LED reading light makes those unscheduled nights an enjoyable way to conclude my evening.
Wherever I am, an e-reader allows editors, agents, or friends to send me large texts. I can adjust lighting, type size, and save files in properly marked folders.
What are your bookish pet peeves?
Not enough books make me cry. All I ask for is one page that makes me cry, one page that teaches me something new, and one page that bolsters my hope for the world.
Favorite Fictional Character?
No one is more surprised by this answer more than myself. Harry Potter. Here’s why: In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid arrives with an invitation to Hogwarts. Hagrid sees Harry’s little room beneath the stairs, living with a family who neither understand nor appreciate him. No matter how many times I watch this scene, it always brings me to tears. Finally, Harry is summoned to a world, a people, who love and appreciate him.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with a museum curator who discovered a now famous artist. I can’t mention names, since they are both living, and I don’t have authorization. But, what the curator confided was a scene right out of Harry Potter. The curator said, “I hunted everywhere for him, until I tracked down his parents. I found this great artist, this gift to the world, living in the cold on their back porch. I’m tempted to say ‘They set him out like a dog.’ but their dogs were inside, out of the weather.”
Current favorite literary quote?
Mine or those pesky competitors?
Mine: “Abraham had eight sons—not one. All eight sons bring something to the table. Abraham loved all his sons. He was a good father who made sure his family was literate, of good character, and shared a common ideology with their father. Abraham did good. Where did we go wrong?” –Michael Benzehabe/Song of Songs the book for daughters
Flawed, mentally deficient competitors: “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is better than your dreams.” –Dr. Seuss
What are your thoughts on Diverse Reading?
All the great sages did it. All mentally curious people do it. All good-hearted people must start. Diverse reading is second only to travel. Anyone serious about building a better world should open their hearts to new faces and fresh ideas. Travel far, hear what suffering people want to tell you, leave gifts of appreciation.
Hidden Gems ( Out Of the Mainstream)
Little Big Man: Thomas Berger
What stayed with me, these many years later, I laughed on every page. Hilarious from beginning to end.American authors have a knack for finding humor in tragedy. Jack Crabb is the sole survivor of The Battle of Little Big Horn (aka Custer’s Last Stand). Let the hilarity begin.
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Sabbatical by John Barth
Simply put, I think John Barth’s mind doesn’t work like ours. That makes every page unpredictable. His work has been described as, postmodern, metafictive. You get the idea—edgy.
Every author chasing the creative fringes must read John Barth. He will make you uncomfortable, you’ll disapprove of his methods, but you’ll keep turning pages.
Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
I just thought this was a brave book. The main characters, Kavita, Somer, and Krishnan, weave a wide web questions to complete the life of an orphaned child from Mumbai. I was impressed by the characters’ courage to ask the next question, even when it seemed too personal, too brash. They kept pushing boundaries for the sake of resolution. A life lesson in emotional courage.
Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu
Set in rural China in the ‘70s, the Wang family produces three sisters (Yumi, Yuxiu, and Yuyang) that drive this novel. What sets them apart is how they negotiate China’s Cultural Revolution that turns China into a global power. Often each character’s story seems to veer off from the narrative, until you realize that the novel’s theme is their shared pain. Pain comes in many flavors. You will eventually recognize yours
The Garden Of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Set in Malaya (Malaysia), Yun Ling Teoh wrestles with flashbacks of the Japanese occupation and all its nightmares. Stylized writing without being heavy handed. Many scenes are breathtaking, despite the subject matter.That too is a lesson in suffering. If we develop an eye for it, we are surrounded by stunning beauty. If we develop a mind for it, every problem contains a life lesson. Eng leads us gently through one insight after another without being preachy. Am I going too far to use the word enlightening? No, I don’t think so. You will experience enlightenment.
The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Dignity and greatness pervades this novel, but the most startling feature is the subtlety in which they are conveyed. That skill takes writing to its highest level. A big salute to Ishiguro.Often stifling for the reader, plowing on provides big rewards, because only when you finish this novel can you stand back and understand it’s totality. All characters suffer deeply from loss, but no one more than Stevens, who has heaped responsibilities on himself that no healthy human should. Duty has its limits, as Ishiguro so deftly teaches us.
Books by Muslim Authors
Fair warning to the reader: As someone who is not political, never has been and never will be political, I’m willing (not anxious) to wade through any cause-of-the-day, waiting patiently for the unguarded moment when a Muslim author reveals their inner being. That’s when I discover their glimmering something. The authors I list below accomplish that.When any stripe of religion declares how religious they are, my hypocrite antenna goes up. It brings me back to the Jonah story, where Jonah loved his religion more than he loved his religion’s God.
The book of Jonah concludes with a soft reproof from Jonah’s God: “So why should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?”One day, in the world to come, I would like to meet Jonah. How surprised this Jewish prophet must have been to see his God’s love for Assyrians. Uh-oh.
That said, now you know on what terms I read Muslim (Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist) authors.
Now, let us think in terms of the five lessons of Ramadan. Muslims have always had a firm place in the upper echelon of literature. Probably because they are broad travelers and persuasive communicators. But, when they are in tune with the universe, when they submit to reality, when they acquire patience, they become superb human beings. Let me share some of my recent discoveries.
Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali
What Ali gets, that many new authors don’t, is that Disney has done more for the Muslim image than Muslims. How? Disney makes you love the characters first. Only then are outsiders interested in digging deeper, to find out what makes this marvelous person tick. As I said earlier, Muslims traveled earlier, further, and experienced more than any other group. Ali gives us a peek inside the soul of Zeynab, showing us her pain, love, anger, and joy. We hurt for her, hope for her, love her.
The Kindness Of Enemies by Leila Aboulela
Again, removing someone from their cultural comfort zone is a clever trope. What quicker way to see what someone is made of? Set in Scotland, a descendant of Imam Shamil becomes a point of fascination for a local professor. And so, human exploration begins.So nice to have others ask the questions we secretly want to ask. So nice to read at a safe distance, away from all the emotional tornados. A reminder that some of our genetic predispositions are worthy of cultivation. Don’t be so quick to assimilate!
Ayesha at last by Uzma Jalaluddin
I hesitate recommending this, since it’s already so widely read, but if contemporary problem solving is on the table, then so is Ayesha at Last. Set in Toronto Canada, Ayesha Shamsi negotiates all the distractions common to the Western world. This brings Muslim cultural values into play. As you might expect, work ethic, entertainment, family, and finally love, must be reconciled. This is when Ayesha must decide who Ayesha is. What’s worth saving? What’s worth editing? What adjustments make for a better person? Who among us shouldn’t be asking the same questions? That’s why you need to read this book. That’s why you must meet Ayesha.
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