December 12, 2010

Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology

My friend Peter Dula’s book Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology has just been published by Oxford. Pete, who teaches religion at Eastern Mennonite University, is one of the smartest and best-read people I’ve met. His reading seems to have no borders: he is versed in philosophy, theology, poetry, and fiction, as well as environmental and bicycling texts. He’s one of the few people I know who can put Tolkien, Tolstoy, and Wittgenstein into the same sentence.

I got to know Pete while serving as a peace worker with Mennonite Central Committee in Burundi. He later went to Iraq, as MCC’s peace worker there (taking over from my brother, incidentally). He subsequently published a number of articles in various Christian periodicals. One, "The War in Iraq: How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong," refuted claims that the Iraq war was just, and generated a heated online debate.

Pete was drawn to Stanley Cavell, who is regarded as something of an oddball in philosophical circles, partly because of his interest in literature: Cavell has a deep reverence for Shakespeare, Austen, and Emerson, among other writers. Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology is the first text to bring Cavell’s ideas into the realm of theology. Pete’s book is deeply literary, discussing, among other writers, W. G. Sebald (and I believe I was the first person to suggest Pete read Sebald – after reading about him in a James Wood volume Pete had sent me!) and Nabokov (Speak, Memory), and poets from Auden to Coleridge to Heaney. The book is scintillatingly well-written, in an accessible style that manages to be both conversational and densely literary. My favorite line: “The good critic is the one most adept at giving reasons for Tolstoy’s superiority over Dostoevsky.” I suggest you buy the book.

October 31, 2010

The Quest for Readable Sci-fi

I recently had a hankering for some sci-fi. Hadn’t read any for a while, so I thought I’d try Snow Crash, which everyone seemed to like. I got about ten pages into it, threw it away, then went back to it a week later. Got about a quarter of the way through it, and realized I was having a very bad time. I hated the chatty, colloquial tone, the “humorous” references to the present. I couldn’t stand a protagonist named Hiro Protagonist, who was a high-tech pizza-delivery boy. So I went on Goodreads, and found a list of best sci-fi. Going through the list, I was surprised to see how many of the books I’d read, and how many I’d given two or three stars. Now, I’m generally a five-star kinda guy, so it got me thinking: why is so much sci-fi so bad, and what do I want out of it?

I remember picking up Dune when I was about ten, at the house of my parents’ friends, and being unable to put it down. It seemed so grown-up, so densely created. The names (Muad’Dib, Bene Gesserit, Leto Atreides) seemed so organic; so right. It was the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings. I read Dune over and over in my teens, before discovering Tolstoy and Hemingway. Sometime in my early thirties I went back and tried to read it again. But this time I saw through the tricks – I saw how Herbert had used Islamic history and Arabic to create his plot and names. The writing was at times dreadful (“Did Hawat talk to you about Salusa Secundus?” “The Emperor’s prison planet? No . . .”), and the characters seemed thinner than I remembered. Nevertheless, I can still taste the initial transport that Dune provided, and that I found in certain other novels – notably Nova by Samuel Delany and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.

Recently, writers such as Catherynne M. Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, and Kelly Link have been doing new and interesting stuff with “fantasy.” So I got to thinking about what a satisfying sci-fi novel would look like in my present post-Tolstoy/Nabokov/Borges state. The only sci-fi novels that I can currently read are William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and in particular the first fifty pages or so, with that densely worked prose and unelaborated, compacted novelty) and Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Doris Lessing’s Shikasta was good, but the “Rachel Sherban’s Diary” sections, which can hardly be termed sci-fi, were by far the best parts. Dhalgren has the language and texture I crave, but is too exasperatingly diffuse. Nothing I’ve found gives me an emotion similar to my initial reading of Dune. I want vast scope, the notion of distant worlds and spaceships spinning among the stars, poetry, ideas . . . and I also want characters as solid as Levin and Maggie Tulliver. Is this asking too much? Are there novels out there I’m missing? Any suggestions?

September 1, 2010

The Book on Fire on Fast Forward TV

The Book on Fire has been nicely reviewed by Fast Forward, the television show devoted to speculative fiction:

"Balthazar is a thief of books, some to maintain his lifestyle, but some his heart seeks; “beautiful books: intricately textured, with music to break your heart, a typeface to sink your teeth into, a story that grips your throat.” In pursuit of this goal, he goes to Alexandria, which is not the city we know, but one where the lighthouse still exists and the Library is a secret place only few can enter. Alexandria is a center for books and is it not a safe place. Dark souls haunt the streets, and every sort of vice is available . . . As in his previous book, Miller has sculpted a work that is a story, poetry, humor and verbal beauty . . . A must read for any book lover, The Book on Fire is another masterpiece . . . and one that should be on your book shelf."

July 14, 2010


is not for everyone. It’s voluptuous, purple, and imaginative to the point of vertigo. Its logic is that of dreams or surrealism. It moves slowly, and for long stretches leaves the reader floundering. Advocates of realist, Iowa School, write-what-you-know novels will despise it.

But for those who love night trains and beekeepers, locksmiths and tattoos; for those who love the words palanquin and persimmon and bibliomancy, this is the book you’ve been waiting for. You might want to peruse the street names of Palimpsest first: Hieratica, Seraphim, Zarzaparrilla, Coriander, Quiescence, Inamorata . . . Are you a citizen of this city?

Some of Valente’s previous works – including the two-volume Orphan’s Tales – can feel too heavy. Her sensual descriptions, untrammeled, can be cloying. This is not to disparage her abilities. It is hard to think of a living writer who possesses Valente’s raw talent and intelligence. She’s the heir of Angela Carter and Isak Dinesen. And she’s barely thirty.

Palimpsest feels like a writer finding her shape. The book is carefully structured: there are five parts, bookended by a “Frontispiece” and a “Verso.” Each part rotates among four characters, Sei, a Japanese lover of trains; November, a Californian beekeeper; Oleg, a locksmith; and Ludovico, a bookbinder. The sections are spliced with mesmerizing forays into Palimpsest – a city adjacent to, or behind, or under our world, whose streets you can walk only if you sleep with someone who’s been there (and, in a sense, Valente is inviting us all to sleep with her as we read the book). The fare is a tattooed map of the city. If you’re lucky, on your hip; if unlucky, on your face.

A few books – The English Patient, Justine, Housekeeping, Lolita – are impossible to hurry through. You want to make a space for them. You sigh, and look out the window, and murmur sentences. Palimpsest joins this elite set. It makes you want to have sex and travel and eat exotic food and write – all the best things.

July 2, 2010

Arabic Words in English

For a while, I’ve been collecting words that entered English via Arabic. I’ve pulled out some of the more interesting examples here. Check out the etymologies for adobe, apricot, assassin, cave (and alcove), chess (and checkmate), drub, and garble. Many nouns brought along with them the Arabic definite article al-, and in some cases (alcove, cave; alchemy, chemistry) English adopted the word twice; once with the article and once without. The photo above is from an early text of The Thousand and One Nights.

admiral - amr al-bihar, commander of the seas
adobe - al-tub, bricks
alchemy - al-kmiya, from Greek khemia, khemeia, art of transmuting metals
alcohol - in the literature of late European
- the quintessence of an earthly substance. See kohl in this list.
alcove - al-qubba, the vault. See also cave.
alfalfa - al-fisfisa, fresh fodder
algebra - al-jabr, the restoring of missing parts. This word is reported to have entered Middle English in the sense of “the setting of broken bones.” The modern mathematical sense comes from the title of a book, al-kitab al-mukhtasar f hisab al-jabr wa-l-muqabala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) by the ninth-century Muslim mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizm.
algorithm or algorism - al-khwarizm, the Khwarizmian. From the name of the Persian scientist, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizm, who wrote the first book on algebra. See algebra in this list.
almanac - al-manakh, “the climate”
amalgam - al-malgham
amber - amber/anbar, yellow
apricot - al-birquq (Note that al-birquq now means ‘plum.’ In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare calls an apricot an “apricock.”)
arsenal - dar al-sinaa, house of manufacturing
artichoke - al-khurshuf
assassin - from al-hashshashn, those who use hashish (cannabis resin).
aubergine - from al-badhinjan, ultimately from Persian badinjan.
average - of disputed origin; possibly from awarya, damaged merchandise
azure - al-lazeward, from Persian lazhvard
caliber - qalib, “mold,” possibly from Greek
calico - Qaliqut “Calicut,” modern Calcutta, city in India
camel - gamal
candy - qandi
carafe – gharraf/gharafa “dip”
caraway - karawiya
carmine - ultimately from Sanskrit krmi-ja
carob - kharrub, (1) locust; (2) carob bean
cat - qotta, itself possibly derived from Latin
cave - al-qubba, the vault (see alcove in this list)
check - shah, “king” - from Persian
checkmate - shah mat, “the king is dead.”
chemistry - see alchemy in this list
chess - from Old French eschecs, plural of check (see above)
cipher - sifr, zero
coffee - qahwa, itself possibly from Kefa, Ethiopia, where the plant originated.
cork - qurq
cotton - qutun
crimson - qirmiz, of the dye kermes, from Persian ghermez, red.
date - possibly from Arabic daqal “date palm.”
drub - from adrub, to hit
elixir - al-iksr, (1) philosopher’s stone; (2) medicinal potion. From Greek xerion, powder for drying wounds
emir - amr (The names Elmer and Almira also derive from this word.)
gala - perhaps from Arabic khila, fine garment given as a presentation.
garble - gharbala, sift; ultimately from Latin cribellum, sieve
gauze - qazz, in turn from Persian kazh “raw silk.”
gazelle - ghazal
genie – jinni, spirit
ghoul - ghul
giraffe - zarafa
hashish - hashsh, grass
hazard - al-zahr, chance, name of the pieces used in the game of nard or tawola. It can also represent a type of flower.
jar - jarrah, large earthen vase
jasmine - from French jasmin, from Arabic yas(a)min
julep - julab “rosewater” - from Persian
lacquer - lakk
lemon - laymun and Persian leemo
lilac - from Arabic lilak, from Persian lilak, variant of nilak “bluish,” from nil “indigo”
lime - Arabic limah “citrus fruit,” a back-formation or a collective noun from limun “lemon”
loofah - from the Egyptian Arabic lufa.
lute - al-ud
macabre - possibly from maqbarah, cemetery
macramé - miqrama, embroidered veil
magazine - makhazin, storehouses
marzipan - mawthaban “coin featuring a seated figure”
mascara - uncertain origin; possibly from maskhara, ‘buffoon,’ or from an unknown language. In modern Arabic, maskhara means “to ridicule.”
mask - perhaps from maskhara “buffoon” – sakhira, ridicule
massage - from either Arabic massa, to stroke, or from Latin massa, dough
mattress - matrah, (1) spot where something is thrown down; (2) mat, cushion
mohair - mukhayyar, having the choice
mulatto - disputed etymology; either from Spanish or Arabic.
muslin - derived from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where cotton fabric was manufactured
nadir - nazr, parallel or counterpart
orange - from Arabic word naranj, from Sanskrit via Persian.
racket - rahah, palm of the hand
ream (quantity of sheets of paper) - rizma, bale, bundle
risk - possibly from Arabic rizq, but also argued to be from Greek.
rook - rukh - from Persian
safari - from Swahili safari, journey, in turn from Arabic safar
saffron - zafaran, species of crocus plant bearing orange stigmas and purple flowers.
sash - shash, turban of muslin
satin - probably from Arabic zaytun (referring to a city)
scarlet - siqillat, fine cloth
sequin - sikka, die, coin
sesame - from simsim
shabby - from shaabi, local, popular
sheikh - sheikh, old man; shakha, grow old
sherbet - sorbet, shrub, syrup - sharab, a drink
shufty - (take a look) from shuuf, see - (adopted by British soldiers in North Africa during World War II)
sine - Latin sinus, mistranslation of jayb “chord of an arc, sine,” through confusion with jayb “fold of a garment”
soda - perhaps from suwwada, suwayd, or suwayda, a species of plant
sofa - suffa, stone ledge
spinach - isfanakh
sugar - sukkar, sugar, ultimately from Sanskrit
sumac - summaq, from Aramaic
summit - al-sumut, the paths
tabby (fabric) - attab (attab), deriv. of (al-)attabiyya, quarter of Baghdad where watered silk was first made, named after a prince, Attab
talc - talq, from Persian
talisman- a blend of the Arabic loan from Greek and the Greek itself
tambourine - a small tambour, from tanbur - from Persian
tariff - tarfa, act of making known; notification
tarragon - tarkhun
tobacco - tabbaq
traffic - tafriq, distribution
typhoon - a blend of Arabic tufan (ultimately from Greek) and the completely independent Cantonese word taaifung
zenith - samt, see summit
zero - sifr

One final word: the Spanish cry, "Olé!" is from the Arabic, "Allah!"

June 18, 2010

Review of The Book on Fire

Nice review of The Book on Fire from Ian Watson, celebrated British sci-fi author of The Embedding, and screenwriter for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

What a gorgeous, sensual, and eloquent, though also economical, style! Such imagery. So many perfect sentences and observations. “Her laughter, like a crow fried on a tram wire …” “Coffee foxed with nutmeg …” If only Flaubert (who wanted to write a book sustained by the force of style alone) and Baudelaire could have read The Book on Fire. This Alexandria, not a city of memory but of imagination, is wonderful with its lighthouse and library still intact, the modern Egyptian streets and smells and foods so vividly evoked. It's a book of wonderful, consuming obsession, and reading it is a bit like a sacred (w)rite. “Occasionally a woman has snagged in my mind like a burr. Obsession does not make us monogamous, despite the fairy tales. Rather it turns the world into a woman.” How true. The Book on Fire is essential reading for anyone who loved Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare or Durrell's Quartet, yet also it's entirely its own book. “A book is a world,” says the book thief narrator. What a world Keith Miller's is, gritty, surreal, intoxicating, full of wisdoms and madnesses, and always a terrible beauty deranging the senses.

June 12, 2010

Writers on Henry James

Lawrence Durrell: "Would you rather read Henry James or be crushed to death by a great weight?"

Oscar Wilde: "Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty."

E. M. Forster: "So enormous is the sacrifice that many readers cannot get interested in James, although they can follow what he says (his difficulty has been much exaggerated), and can appreciate his effects. They cannot grant his premise, which is that most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel. . . . Maimed creatures can alone breathe in Henry James’s pages – maimed yet specialised."

Arnold Bennett: "It took me years to ascertain that Henry James's work was giving me little pleasure . . . In each case I asked myself: 'What the dickens is this novel about, and where does it think it's going to?' Question unanswerable! I gave up. Today I have no recollection whatever of any characters or any events in either novel."

T. S. Eliot: "He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it."

Marilyn "Clover" Adams: "It's not that he 'bites off more than he can chew' but he chews more than he bites off."

H. L. Mencken: "An idiot, and a Boston idiot to boot, than which there is nothing lower in the world."

Vladimir Nabokov: "He writes with a very sharp nib and the ink is very pale and there is very little of it in his inkpot . . . The style is artistic but it is not the style of an artist . . . Henry James is definitely for non-smokers. He has charm (as the weak blond prose of Turgenev has), but that’s about all."

More from Nabokov: "I have read (or rather reread) 'What Maisie Knew.' It is terrible. Perhaps there is some other Henry James and I am continuously hitting upon the wrong one?"

Even more from Nabokov: "Henry James is a pale porpoise."

Virginia Woolf: "Please tell me what merit you find in Henry James . . . We have his works here, and I read them, and can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar, and as pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?"

Jorge Luis Borges: "Despite the scruples and delicate complexities of James his work suffers from a major defect: the absence of life."

Cormac McCarthy (from a New York Times interview): Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."

Jonathan Franzen: "I tried to start Portrait of a Lady last night, which I had read only in college . . . maybe it was too late to read anything, but I became so impatient with the multiple redundancies in the first paragraph that I cast it aside in anger. The first paragraph alone! You really have to be in the mood for Henry James."

And finally, Mark Twain said he would rather "be damned to John Bunyan's heaven" than read Henry James's novel The Bostonians.

May 22, 2010

The Box of Delights

John Masefield, poet laureate of the U.K. from 1930 till his death in 1967, is perhaps best known for his poem “Sea Fever” (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”). He was also, however, one of the finest and most influential writers of children’s books. I first read The Box of Delights in Kenya, when I was about ten. When I went to the States for college, I was horrified to find that no one had heard of it, and that the only available edition had been butchered by an abridger (who had somehow managed to trim out all the most marvelous and magical parts). Happily, New York Review Books recently came out with unabridged versions of both The Box of Delights and its precursor, The Midnight Folk. It now seems to be finding some sort of readership in the U.S.

The Box of Delights was first published in 1935, and achieved immediate success in Britain, where it is viewed with the same reverence as A Christmas Carol. It follows the adventures of Kay, who meets Cole Hawlings, a traveling Punch and Judy man, at a train station. Hawlings has a magical box that is coveted by a gang of criminals disguised as clergy. Knowing he’ll soon be “scrobbled” by the gang, Hawling gives the box to Kay, who gets into adventures.

Among the supporting cast of characters, Maria, Kay’s gun-toting cousin, stands out (“I shall shoot and I shall shock, as long as my name’s Maria”), as does Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Kay’s former governess. The novel is delightfully illustrated by Masefield.

Three years after The Box of Delights came out, T.H. White published The Sword in the Stone, which was to become the foundation of The Once and Future King. Certain sections of White’s book owe much to Masefield’s, including the parts where the Wart turns into various animals. In 1948, C.S. Lewis published the first of the Narnia books. Lewis revered The Box of Delights – “The beauties, all the ‘delights’ that keep on emerging from the box – are so exquisite, and quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere” – and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in particular, has a similar feel: snow, wolves, magic, Christmas. Two of the children are even named Peter and Susan. Several sections of The Magician’s Nephew, as noted here, are also indebted to The Box of Delights. But the book that pays the most overt homage is probably Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The Christmas theme, a boy meeting strange people with bright eyes who wear unusual rings, and the scenes with Herne the Hunter are all heavily inspired by the earlier novel.

If the novels by White, Lewis, and Cooper had come out today, there would probably be a media furor and lawsuits once people realized the similarities with The Box of Delights. So the book is also a lovely reminder of a more innocent time, when writers were free to be inspired, and free to purloin scenes and characters and turn them to their own uses, in trying to recreate a bit of magic.

April 24, 2010


Tom Stoppard's portable bookshelf (via NYTimes)

This is how I want to get my exercise! (via dvice)

Nice! (via odee)

The Bibliochaise (via Switched On Set)

April 14, 2010

Tahir Bushra

I met Tahir Bushra in Asmara in 1994. He was a Sudanese Nuban, and had moved to Asmara to be able to create his art in relative freedom. When I met him, he was making the most beautiful paintings I'd ever seen. Most were on wood. Some were the size of doors; others were barely a foot square. His materials were sand, shoe polish, white house paint, oil pastel, and ballpoint pen. Some of the symbols in his paintings are derived from Nuban body painting, scarification, and house decoration (see Leni Riefenstahl's The Last of the Nuba and People of Kau for wonderful examples). Others are taken from koujour, the Nuban shamanistic healing rituals.

Tahir was a strange, taciturn, wonderful person, prone to disappearing without warning. He either sold his paintings for exorbitant prices or gave them away. He was something of a legend among the artists in Sudan, and his style was enormously influential.

I later visited him in Addis Ababa, and traveled with him and an Australian friend to the Blue Nile Falls and Gondar. I heard rumors that he went to London, and then San Francisco. Unlike many of the other Sudanese artists I met, he seems to have little web presence. With the assistance of Ray Dirks, I have gathered here the few images I could find. I'm hoping that Google might bring Tahir aficionados to this post. If anyone out there knows anything about Tahir, please let me know . . .


According to the comments and emails I've received after posting this, Tahir is - or was until fairly recently - living in Iowa, and is still doing art (some of which incorporates chains!). You can see some blurry pictures here. Be sure to read the beautiful poem on Tahir by Abdulmuniem Rahmat Allah, and check out commenter Gassim Abdelkader's wonderful paintings on his website.

April 11, 2010

Egyptian Paperbacks

I love Egyptian paperbacks. Even classics by Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein get this romantic, film-poster treatment. Most have a woman in the foreground and a handsome chap or two (often in cool colors, and often wielding a weapon) in the background. Some are quite risque. The interiors often contain excellent black-and-white line drawings or prints.

Abnaa Abi Bakr al-Saddiq

from Karnak Cafe by Naguib Mahfouz

(The Teacher)

Al-Zela al-Ula (The First Lapse)

April 3, 2010

On the Radio!

You can hear me mumbling about The Book on Fire on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge, hosted by the handsome Jim Fleming (in the photo above). I'm part of a show called "Writers on Writing," together with Nicholson Baker, Jane Hamilton, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Nick Cave. Show times are here. I'm in the first hour. The show will be available for streaming or podcast from April 5.

Remedios Varo

Creacion de los Aves, Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo, whose painting Magic Flight is the cover image of The Book of Flying, was born in Spain in 1908. She fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War, and then to Mexico City following the Nazi occupation of France. In Mexico, she met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and honed her unsettling, dreamlike style. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in her work, and several major retrospectives have been held. More of her paintings can be seen here and here.

Some of her interiors remind me of Antonello de Messina's Saint Jerome in His Study (below), a painting I adore. I love the little platform he sits on, surrounded by his books, and the weird potted tree by his foot, and the hideous dwarf lion pacing the tiles to the right, and the wonderful landscape outside the windows. You can zoom around in the painting at the National Gallery website.

March 27, 2010

Durrell's Tower

This tower is on the roof of the Ambron Villa in Alexandria. Aldo and Amelia Ambron were wealthy patrons of the arts. When they heard that Lawrence Durrell was looking for an apartment, they invited him to stay at the villa. He claimed this tower as his writing chamber. At that time, there were no apartment buildings surrounding the tower, and he could see Pompey's Pillar and Lake Mareotis from his perch. Here he wrote the sublime Prospero's Cell, and made the first notes toward Justine, which he called his "Book of the Dead." Eve Cohen, the young Alexandrian Jew who was the model for Justine and who became his first wife, was the only visitor allowed in the tower. There's a picture of her as a schoolgirl on Michael Haag's website. David Gentleman's watercolor of the tower was used on one Faber & Faber paperback of The Alexandria Quartet (left).

Unfortunately the Ambron Villa is under threat. I wrote an article about it here.

March 22, 2010



The Door

The Birth of the Light

I first met Abushariaa in Khartoum in 1993. He was working from a tiny room, most of which was filled with a desk. Abushariaa worked on one side; his friend worked on the other. On the floor beside him was a waist-high stack of papers, and he was adding to the stack at the rate of four or five paintings a day.

Khartoum under the authoritarian Bashir regime was not the most receptive environment for artists, and Abushariaa, with a number of other young artists, fled to Nairobi in 1995. He has since become rather well known, and has exhibited throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. I love the whimsy in his work, and the blend of happenstance and precision. You can see more of his work here and here.

March 20, 2010


Egyptian singer Oum Koulsoum was, in the Arab world, bigger than Elvis, the Beatles, and the Stones rolled together. This was her favorite song, from a poem by Ibrahim Nagi. "Al-Atlal" might translate as "The Ruins." It refers to a trope from the pre-Islamic qasida form, in which a desert traveler comes across the campsite of a former lover and uses the objects as steppingstones for his memory. Lines from the song are sprinkled throughout The Book on Fire.

March 16, 2010

Some Comments on Narnia

Lucy first enters the wardrobe because "she likes nothing more than the touch of fur." Later, when she and Susan are walking beside Aslan as he goes to his death, he allows them to do what they'd always wanted: place their hands in his mane.

Prince Caspian is the worst of the seven books. One theme running through it is that of belief: the Narnians have forgotten about their heritage; Trumpkin doesn't believe in Aslan (or the Pevensies); only Lucy sees Aslan at first when he appears. It's as if Lewis is trying to regain the belief in his imagination that sustained The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was the book he needed to write to get to the sublime Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we are informed three times how dangerous it is to close a wardrobe door behind us (this struck me very strongly as a child). Lucy and Peter leave it open, but Edmund closes it. Lewis seems to be indicating that Edmund's trials within the wardrobe are somehow linked to closing the door. But this doesn't pan out.

In the forums at Into the Wardrobe, someone has posited a theory that the Pevensies are descended from the royal house of Charn. It goes something like this: Uncle Andrew's great-aunt Lefay had in her possession a box of dust from the Wood Between the Worlds. It is mentioned that one of the other people in England with fairy blood was a duchess. At the end of The Magician's Nephew, Digory's father inherits a large house in the country (from the duchess?). Thus, the Pevensies possibly have fairy blood from two sources, which the theorist suggests is really a link to Charn!

Nuggets of Narnian wisdom: Never shut yourself into a wardrobe. It is a serious business to invite a centaur over for a meal. Always remember to wipe your sword. Even the stars in our world are not what they appear to be made of. Most people are dead. If you fall overboard, kick off your shoes. No one is told what would have happened.

The Silver Chair is almost like a mirrored Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Many elements are the same, though reversed, or "upside-down": A boy (and the "bad" boy, Eustace) has been to Narnia first, and brings the girl in. Rather than entering the middle of Narnia, they enter beyond the end of the world, in Aslan's country. Their dour helper, Puddleglum, is the opposite of the cheery beavers and flute-playing Tumnus. Many scenes take place at night. The end of the book takes place underground. The piece of furniture in the title is a prison, rather than a means of liberation. The witch is not "white" but "green." When they emerge from the witch's underground domain, it is into a scene much like the one Lucy first saw in Narnia: faun, snow. At the end of the book, they watch Caspian become younger.

Extraordinary fruit: The berries the birds bring on Ramandu's Island, and that Lucy's cordial is made from, are fire-berries from the sun. Golg wants them to taste "living diamonds and rubies" in Bism. The fruit in Aslan's country would make "the most melting pear taste woody." The children live on apples when they first return to Narnia in Prince Caspian. Jadis eats of the apple in The Magician's Nephew, and it gives her eternal life. A "child" of one of these apples saves Digory's mother. And a seed from this "child" grows into the tree from whose wood the wardrobe will be made.

In Prince Caspian, Doctor Cornelius describes dwarfs "shaving off their beards and wearing high heels" in order to evade the Telmarines. Sounds like they might have had issues other than their height.

There are a number of differences between the older U.S. and British editions. These were made by Lewis when the first U.S. edition came out. For example, Maugrim becomes Fenris Ulf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Jadis's world, Charn, has an older, colder sun than ours. Thus it makes sense that, when she ruled Narnia as the White Witch, she would be very pale-skinned and create a world where it was always winter.

Neil Gaiman has written a story, "The Problem of Susan," about a woman remembering her siblings who were killed in a train crash. It also examines the issue of centaur sex.

The sardines on toast Tumnus serves: who tins these? Is there a sardine-tinning factory run by dwarfs? Or are they imported from Calormen?

One can pass some amusing minutes imagining encounters of various Narnian inhabitants: Father Christmas meets Tash, Bacchus meets the Sea Serpent . . .

On the subject of Father Christmas: it is clear that Christmas, at least in Narnia, has nothing to do with the date. Does this mean that the Witch, in doing away with seasonal changes, also somehow froze time?

Wikipedia informs us that a "Narnian" is a moniker for a gay person who is deep in the closet.

The Narnia books draw on a vast number of sources, including Greek mythology, Plato, George Macdonald (an acknowledged influence), and others. A couple other interesting sources are E.M. Forster's short stories and John Masefield's wonderful, wonderful The Box of Delights. In Forster's "The Story of a Panic," a horrible, lazy boy named Eustace blows a whistle in an Italian landscape, and unwittingly summons Pan (a faun). By the end of the story, Eustace is transformed. The Box of Delights, which was also a major influence on T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, contains characters named Peter and Susan. At one point, a rhyme advises the protagonist, Kay, not to blow a hunting-horn. ("He that dares blow must blow me thrice/Or feed th'outrageous cockatrice.") Over Susan's protestations, he blows the horn, and "the beautiful people in the portraits stepped down into the room." The King of the Fairies says, "The long enchantment has been brought to an end." Very similar to the scene with the bell in Charn.

March 14, 2010

David Ho

I've recently become obsessed with the art of David Ho. The image above is from a series called "Candice the Ghost." Check out his immaculate website.

March 10, 2010

The Library on the Wrong Side of Nairobi

I just won a little contest called "Why I Write," hosted by Editor Unleashed and Smashwords. Here's my contribution:

I am a writer because somebody left a library at the end of a dirt track on the wrong side of Nairobi.

The right side of Nairobi was Parklands, where there were supermarkets and ice-cream parlors. That was where the other kids at my American school lived. But I lived on Jogoo Road, on the eastern outskirts of the city, the only white boy for miles.

Behind our house was a market, where women sold pineapples and dried fish from burlap sacks spread over the mud. To the left was a police station, from which, at night, I could hear the screams of prostitutes being whipped. To the right was the mosque that woke me every day at dawn. But if I walked along the dirt track, past the police station and around the corner, I came to a square cement-block building. It had once been painted white, but the outer walls were daubed orange with the prints of soccer balls. This was the city council library for our district, a relic of the colonial administration.

Inside, the only light came from the open door: the high windows were opaque with grime and the gray neon bulb hung vertically by a tendril. Happily, the children’s bookcase stood beside the door, so I was able to read the titles if the day was sunny. If I wanted to peruse the interior text, however, I had to lean with my back against the doorjamb, holding the pages to the light.

There were always two other people in the library: the librarian and her infant son. The librarian spent her time weaving kiondos and chewing sugar cane. Hanks of white pith in various stages of desiccation littered the floor around her desk and mingled a ripe, tangy odor with the mildew of the books. She would greet me with a grin, displaying nubbins of brown tooth, and say: “Bwana Keith! How many today?” Her son crawled around on the floor, variously chewing on the discarded sugar cane or on the books within his reach. This meant that many volumes on the lower shelves were missing pages, or had covers gnawed down to the spine.

The books were all written prior to 1963, which was when Kenya gained its independence, and were all by British authors. So for a few years, from when I started reading for myself at age six till we moved to Parklands when I was eleven, I subsisted entirely on a diet of E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Mary Norton, and other writers from what I still consider to be the golden age of literature. Though an antique sign above the librarian’s head warned that I could not check out more than two books per fortnight, this was waived in my case, perhaps because I was the solitary patron. I usually checked out four books at a time, which was about a week’s worth of reading.

Check-out, an elaborate procedure, involved writing my name both on the library card and in the librarian’s enormous ledger. She would then page through the book with her sticky fingers and, having carefully changed the date on her stamp, would rock it in the purple ink of the pad and apply it in two places. Her sugar-cane fingerprints acted like glue wherever she touched, so at intervals, as I read, I would have to pry two pages apart. As the paper was softened by the climate, this left a wispy nap. At home, reading in my special armchair, I would sometimes touch my tongue to these sweetened corners.

Many years later, after my first novel had been published, I returned to the library, on a private pilgrimage to this shrine that had made me a writer. I was surprised at how tiny it was: the children’s shelves were only a couple paces long. The librarian had been replaced by a young man, but the books were still there. I opened one. The last name on the card, written carefully in pencil, was my own.

March 7, 2010

Art from The Book of Flying

I recently discovered some ink drawings I'd made while I was writing The Book of Flying. I thought readers might be interested in my mental images of Pico and Balquo.

March 3, 2010

The Book on Fire

My second novel, The Book on Fire, has been published by Immanion Press. You can read the first chapter here. The book is illustrated with black-and-white linocut prints, some of which you can see here.

The Book on Fire is available in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's, and as an ebook (in a variety of formats, including Kindle-compatible .mobi) from Smashwords.

The Illuminations

My translation of Arthur Rimbaud's The Illuminations has been published by Quinx Books.

Three of the poems, as well as some musings, have been published here.

The Illuminations is available from Amazon.