September 14, 2016
My friend Charles Monroe-Kane has published a memoir, Lithium Jesus, with the University of Wisconsin Press. Chuck and I were roommates our first year at Goshen College in 1987. We were an odd pair: I hadn't spent much time outside of East Africa and Chuck came from a poor Ohio family. Somehow, though, we hit it off and have remained friends for nearly thirty years.
This book tells the story of Chuck's struggle with mental illness, and his attempts to come to peace with himself via religion, drugs, sex, and other escapades. It's highly entertaining, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. If you're paying attention, you might spot me flicker on and off the page at one point. I suggest you buy the book.
September 1, 2016
July 16, 2016
My third novel, The Sins of Angels, is now available for preorder from PS Publishing. It’s a noirish paranormal thriller set in Cairo and the Western Desert, about a couple of hapless detectives who stumble upon a fallen angel. At this point, it’s available in a limited edition of one hundred signed hardbacks, and as an unsigned hardback. You can read the first chapter on my website.
The publisher asked me to write something about the genesis of the book, and I’m including that below.
In 1999, after three years in southern Sudan, my wife and I moved to Egypt. Soon after we arrived, I picked up E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide, which has been called the best guidebook ever written. It deftly melds the mythology and history of the city with modern-day landmarks. In the opening pages, Forster gives a brief synopsis of the Gnostic cosmogony, discussing the demiurge and Sophia, the last of the fallen angels. Reading his overview, I had a vision of a fallen angel on a Cairo sidewalk, and knew I would write her story one day.
Seven years later, the notion of a literary and detective agent came to me, and dovetailed with the earlier vision of the fallen angel. In the meantime, I’d discovered the Nag Hammadi texts and had delved deeper into Gnosticism, and realized I could fruitfully bring that knowledge to bear on the tale of Sophia and my blundering detective, George Zacharias. The book was started in Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, completed in Madison, Wisconsin, and polished in Ventura, California.
One of the great pleasures I had while working on this book was the discovery of Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels, an immensely rich and comprehensively researched text. I knew little about angels and their hierarchies when I started out, and Davidson’s book provided the background I needed to create a solid structure. I’ll leave off with the following passage from Davidson’s alluring introduction:
“Without committing myself religiously I could conceive of the possibility of there being, in dimensions and worlds other than our own, powers and intelligences outside our present apprehension, and in this sense angels are not to be ruled out as a part of reality—always remembering that we create what we believe. Indeed, I am prepared to say that if enough of us believe in angels, then angels exist...”
May 29, 2016
My father has led an extraordinary life. Born into an Amish family in Hartville, Ohio, he was the first in his community to go to college, where he met my mother. They joined Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions, and went to Tanzania, where my mother had been born, and then Sudan, where my father helped set up the Sudan Council of Churches. In 1974, they moved to Nairobi, where he worked first with the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), then volunteered as regional representative for Mennonite Central Committee, and finally served as an adviser to the All Africa Council of Churches. He remains active in Nairobi and the region today.
He is perhaps the most modest person you'll meet, but has had an astonishing influence. While working in rural development with NCCK, he facilitated the creation of the first sand dams in Machakos, which have dramatically raised the water table in the region. The Nairobi Peace Initiative, which he helped set up, has had an enormous impact on the continent, and was instrumental in heading off Kenya's descent into civil war following the 2007 elections. At eighty, he is as active as ever, walking many miles a day and offering his services as mzee (elder).
Last year, my brother and I helped my dad get a collection of his occasional pieces into print. Encounters in Africa is the first volume, containing primarily lighter stuff: book reviews, anecdotes, travel pieces. A second volume, due out later this year, will include weightier material.
Recently, a Canadian Mennonite book group read Encounters in Africa. Their delightful reflections were published by The Mennonite under the title "An Evening with Harold." (The picture is of the author of the piece, not my father.)
March 16, 2016
Sofia's second novel, The Winged Histories, is now out. Her first, A Stranger in Olondria, won the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award. This book takes place in the same densely constructed world. It tells the stories of four women in wartime, and is possibly more gorgeous and heartbreaking than Stranger.
Here's Sofia's blog post about the novel, and here's an interview at the Los Angeles Times.
December 1, 2015
November 25, 2015
|Image by Euan Monaghan/Structo|
She is eighty-six now, small and hunched, with a low voice and deeply wrinkled skin. For ninety minutes she was in conversation with an appropriately awestruck moderator and read from several works and took questions. She came across as witty, ridiculously intelligent, and somehow simultaneously kindly and prickly. Some of the more interesting moments: Rocannon's World, her first published novel, was in fact the sixth novel she wrote. She considers her first three published novels, which would include Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, to be "apprentice work." Thus, I suppose, she would suggest that her real career begins with A Wizard of Earthsea, which is probably where most of her readers begin as well. Landscape and human intervention came up more than once. She read three poems about the Colorado River, before and after the damming, and offered a beautiful and emotional response to a question from Sofia about Always Coming Home, saying that she was trying to create a positive future for a landscape she cared for deeply. Her pacifist stance came through very strongly, as did her love of Virginia Woolf and J.R.R. Tolkien. In Earthsea, the old word for stone is tolk; it comes up at least twice, in poignant moments, and I believe this is a nod to Tolkien's influence on her. Furthermore, inien is the word for sea, so "Earthea" itself is possibly "Tolkien" in the old language. She mentioned Tolkien's "beats" - the alternating lights and darks, ups and downs, tensions and resolutions - which she says occur at every level: sentence, section, and chapter. She also told us that she read The Lord of the Rings aloud three times (to each of her kids), and is a strong believer in reading one's own work aloud.
I read the first three Earthsea books in Nairobi at the age of nine or ten. They were the lovely set in the clamshell, with the spines that make a perky little fish when put together. They were immediately placed on that special pedestal that contains the other hallowed multi-book fantasies: The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. All the others were second-rate imitators: Shannara and Thomas Covenant and Dragonriders of Pern and other crap. Of course I read everything else I could get my hands on in Nairobi, though I was too young for The Left Hand of Darkness. I devoured the short stories and the early novels and the slightly less compelling middle novels, The Word for World Is Forest, The Eye of the Heron, and The Beginning Place (though Le Guin's great gift is storytelling, and her work is always compulsively readable, with a special empathy that shines through even in her more minor work). Then in college I read Always Coming Home and The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and became obsessed. The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, in particular, became touchstone works in the way A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan had been when I was a child.
More than any other living writer, Le Guin seems timeless. I think Earthsea and The Dispossessed will be read in a hundred years, and possibly in five hundred. Though she's had a few misses, the catalog of her hits is more extensive than that of just about any writer I can think of. Here's my Le Guin canon (in no particular order):
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
"She Unnames Them"
"Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight"
The Left Hand of Darkness
Always Coming Home
May 2, 2015
Okay, this is pretty awesome. Jonathan Basile has created Borges's Library of Babel online. You can choose books off the shelves and read them! In an interview at Flavorwire, Basile says: "When I started building the site, I actually had in the back of my mind the idea that a searchable, virtual Library of Babel might make it possible to find a few of those rational arrangements of letters. I very quickly realized how incorrect I was. And that I think is the most important part of the project — it gives that brief glimmer of hope, that reason might win out over unreason, then crushes it. In this way the site is true to Borges’ vision — I think he wants us to see that all the creations of reason, of human language and thought, are haunted and undermined by their irrational reproducibility."
March 1, 2015
January 31, 2015
Over at the always wonderful Biblioklept, Edwin Turner draws interesting parallels between the enigmatic epilogue to Blood Meridian and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Here's the epilogue:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.Like Turner, I'd read the epilogue as describing the actions of a post-hole digger, followed by archaeologists ... and "those who do not search" (settlers; us?). I'd imagined the digger marking the boundary between Mexico and the U.S., but as Turner notes, he could also be "carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth." Turner notes other interpretations: "it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire." Turner doesn't arrive at a satisfying conclusion; perhaps all we can say is that both McCarthy and Anderson are grappling with America's greedy, blood-soaked past and (perhaps) trying to draw lines to the present.
I first read Blood Meridian in Burundi, where I served with Mennonite Central Committee as a peace worker. It was a fraught time, and perhaps the novel explained or at least echoed some of the horrors I witnessed. A fellow MCCer had borrowed the book from a friend in the States, and I read the twice-borrowed copy to tatters, entranced by the language and the character of Judge Holden. For a while I thought it was McCarthy's finest novel, but now I'm back to All the Pretty Horses, with Suttree a close second.
November 10, 2014
My wife's novel A Stranger in Olondria has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel. Earlier this year, Sofia won the British Fantasy Award for best novel, as well as the John W. Campbell Award and the Crawford Award. At the World Fantasy Convention, she announced that she has signed a contract with Small Beer for a second novel, The Winged Histories, and a collection of stories.
September 26, 2014
Open Culture has a list written by Tolstoy of books that influenced him. Very pleased to see my beloved George Eliot on the list. Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Wood) is new to me. I'll have to check her out. They also have a scratchy audio recording of him reading in English, German, French, and Russian.
Here's the book list:
WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION
Childhood to the age of 14 or so
The story of Joseph from the Bible - Enormous
Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman - Great
The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky - V. great
Russian byliny: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich. Folk Tales - Enormous
Puskin’s poems: Napoleon - Great
Age 14 to 20
Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount – Enormous
Sterne’s Sentimental Journey – V. great
Rousseau Confessions - Enormous
Emile - Enormous
Nouvelle Héloise - V. great
Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin - V. great
Schiller’s Die Räuber - V. great
Gogol’s Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect - Great
“Viy” [a story by Gogol] – Enormous
Dead Souls - V. great
Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches - V. great
Druzhinin’s Polinka Sachs - V. great
Grigorovich’s The Hapless Anton - V. great
Dickens’ David Copperfield - Enormous
Lermontov’s A Hero for our Time, Taman - V. great
Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico - Great
Age 20 to 35
Goethe. Hermann and Dorothea - V. great
Victor Hugo. Notre Dame de Paris - V. great
Tyutchev’s poems – Great
Koltsov’s poems – Great
The Odyssey and The Iliad (read in Russian) – Great
Fet’s poems – Great
Plato’s Phaedo and Symposium (in Cousin’s translation) – Great
Age 35 to 50
The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek) – V. great
The byliny - V. great
Victor Hugo. Les Misérables - Enormous
Xenophon’s Anabasis - V. great
Mrs. [Henry] Wood. Novels – Great
George Eliot. Novels – Great
Trollope, Novels – Great
Age 50 to 63
All the Gospels in Greek – Enormous
Book of Genesis (in Hebrew) – V. great
Henry George. Progress and Poverty - V. great
[Theodore] Parker. Discourse on religious subject – Great
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons – Great
Feuerbach (I forget the title; work on Christianity) [“The Essence of Christianity”] – Great
Pascal’s Pensées - Enormous
Epictetus – Enormous
Confucius and Mencius – V. great
On the Buddha. Well-known Frenchman (I forget) [“Lalita Vistara”] – Enormous
Lao-Tzu. Julien [S. Julien, French translator] – Enormous
September 7, 2014
Salah Elmur was one of the artists I hung out with in Khartoum in the early 1990s. He had a unique playful style, reminiscent of Paul Klee. His wife was also an artist, working on fanciful dolls. I later met him in Nairobi, where he was living with a number of other Sudanese artists who had fled Bashir's repressive regime. I recently stumbled on Salah's new website, and also realized he has a Facebook page filled with wonderful images. His latest work is remarkable, combining East and Northeast African idioms and symbols with an artistic sensibility the equal of David Hockney or Francis Bacon.
July 3, 2014
The LA Times writes about Charlotte and Bramwell Brontë's tiny books, made when they were twelve and thirteen, respectively. The Houghton Library at Harvard holds nine of the books, which are just an inch wide and two inches long; eleven others are held by the Brontë Museum or are in private collections. You can leaf through the books here.
June 20, 2014
May 23, 2014
Nice review of The Book on Fire from The Broke and the Bookish:
"This is a book about book lovers. This is a book for book lovers. This is a book for someone who can curl up in the same spot for hours and completely lose their surroundings to the story they are occupying. This book so accurately captures the feeling of being entranced and obsessed with stories. It describes how stories are completely different when they are read alone than when they are read aloud and shared with another. It wonders what happens to a story when its book has been burned . . ."
April 22, 2014
Marvelously convoluted and Borgesian tale of a stolen Borges first edition, the Argentinian National Library, and a possibly shady bookseller, up at the Paris Review:
"Casares, now suspected of having taken part in the very crime whose investigation he had initiated, testified before the judge that the book was not the same one that had been stolen from the Library—nor, however, was it the facsimile he’d sold to Pastore. It was, he explained, a third book, similar to the others."
April 15, 2014
Excellent poem by my wife up at Tor:
"Araweilo the queen is dead wicked queen Araweilo.
Sing she is dead.
Rejoice she is dead cruel Araweilo the foe of men.
She is dead, the queen of impossible tasks who said: Men climb Mil-Milac or else you die, climb Mil-Milac the mountain of glass.
Araweilo laughed and her teeth were of glass like the mountain her manicured nails were of glass and the clasps of her slippers her cell phone her lipstick her car."
Read a bit about Araweilo here.
April 7, 2014
I first read The English Patient in Atbara in northern Sudan, and the wonderful Lee Miller photo on the cover echoed the landscape. For a couple of years I couldn't get enough of the book, rereading it every few months. The sentences are so carefully wrought, the language always riskily fresh:
"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps. I carried Katharine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumor of wells. In the palace of winds."
Though the characterization is at times awkward - a by-product of Ondaatje's risk-taking - one falls achingly in love with the characters.
Ondaatje writes piecemeal, crafting scenes, honing characters, and then hoping for a narrative. He has said that the first section he wrote was Caravaggio's theft of the camera in the hotel. The English patient's voice arrived with the word "aerodrome."
Count Ladislaus de Almásy, Ralph Bagnold, Hassanein Bey, and certain others mentioned in the book were genuine desert explorers. The real Almásy was, however, gay.
Though the setting is exotic, some of the Katharine/Geoffrey Clifton/Ladislaus de Almásy triangle may be related to Ondaatje's theft of Kim Ondaatje (thin, blonde, artsy) from her professor husband in Ontario.
(An extended aside: Ondaatje's books echo each other, so rereading them is a curiously deep and wide experience. Anna in Divisadero says: "We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories." Here are some echoes.
Names in The English Patient: Hana, Clara, Kip. Names in Divisadero: Anna, Claire, Coop. Anna and Hana also chimes with Anil from Anil's Ghost.
Kip is a Sikh, a group that has a "mystical affinity for machines." Coop prefers metal to wood: "all those varieties and modes of metal life." Kip is a sapper, dismantling bombs. Coop "loved risk and could be passive around danger."
When Coop loses his memory after being tortured, Claire pretends to be Anna. Anil buys her brother's name for "one hundred saved rupees, a pen set he had been eyeing for some time, a tin of fifty Gold Leaf cigarettes she had found, and a sexual favor." In Divisadero, Roman and Marie-Neige pretend to be brother and sister. "A family keeps its secrets," notes Anna.
Coop is tortured in Divisadero. Caravaggio is tortured in The English Patient.
Both Caravaggio and Rafael's thief father find their wives during or in the aftermath of robberies.
In The English Patient, Kip subsists on raw vegetables and herbs. In Divisadero, Rafael always seems to have raw herbs about him.
In Divisadero, Anna brings soap with her "from another world." In Running in the Family, a boar steals Ondaatje's Pear's transparent soap, which he has carried through the filthy hotels of Africa.
Kip and Coop both refuse drugs.
Caravaggio and Rafael are both named for Italian painters.
In Coming Through Slaughter, Buddy Bolden smacks and shatters a window pane. In Divisadero, Anna shoves a triangle of glass into her father's shoulder. Later in Divisadero, Lucien receives a splinter of glass in his eye.)
The themes of The English Patient include identity, religions, encounters across cultures, and youth/age. At one point the English patient says:
"There's a painting by Caravaggio, done late in his life. David with the Head of Goliath. In it, the young warrior holds at the end of his outstretched arm the head of Goliath, ravaged and old. But that is not the true sadness in the picture. It is assumed that the face of David is a portrait of the youthful Caravaggio and the head of Goliath is a portrait of him as an older man, how he looked when he did the painting. Youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand. The judging of ones's own mortality. I think when I see him at the foot of my bed that Kip is my David."
But the thief Caravaggio is of course also a portrait of Ondaatje, and one could surmise that the older Ondaatje is judging the young self who committed the infidelities with an older woman.
The English Patient gathers many other works into its pages: Anna Karenina, Kim (echoing his first wife's name, and also chiming with Kip), Herodotus's Histories, A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Sometime a fire" is from a speech by Puck), Paradise Lost, and jazz lyrics, among others.
The book does not entirely work. The final sections, in which Kip, an Indian Sikh, hears of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagines "all Asia on fire," then threatens the English patient and drives off in a rage, are silly. As is "meet me at the moondial." Overall, Kip is the least convincing character. His actions lack coherence. However, the scenes in which he watches the Virgin come across the water, and his hours in deserted Naples are lovely.
Ondaatje's earlier books are wonderful. In the Skin of the Lion and Running in the Family have the same romantic, piecemeal, slightly insane quality I love in The English Patient. Unfortunately, as so often seems to be the case, the success of The English Patient appears to have had a negative effect on Ondaatje's writing. Anil's Ghost feels forced and thin, Divisadero doesn't work structurally, and The Cat's Table is too light.